Minding the Gap Year

Minding the Gap Year

Have you heard of students taking a gap year between high school and college? It’s a growing trend at competitive colleges and is becoming mainstream before attending college. Even former President Obama’s daughter took a gap year before starting Harvard.  You may have wondered exactly what a gap year entails and why students are taking them? Gap year means exactly what it sounds like – taking a year off before starting college.

98% of students taking a gap year self-report that they further developed as a person and allowed time for personal reflection. 77% report the gap year had or will impact career decisions and helped them find purpose in life. And 73% said it increased their readiness for college. (http://www.americangap.org/research.php) Colleges collecting data on students taking gap years support these findings as well as students being more likely to graduate in four years.

Not all gap years are the same, evidenced by the increased number of companies planning gap years. There is even a gap college fair, like the college fair but focused on experiences for the year before college. The broad categories of gap year experiences are:

Academic – Students focus on learning new languages, research projects, and developing talents such as music. Some programs offer college credit and programs range from weeks to months.

Adventure/Travel – Students travel to see new cultures and deepen their perspective about the world. Some programs combine travel with challenging skills such as mountain climbing and canyoneering to gain self-confidence and reliance.

Community Service – Students develop a sense of place in the world by giving assistance to communities in need. They learn about global challenges and discover how their actions make a difference.

Environmental Conservation – Students learn skills to become ecological leaders. Mixing travel with educational perspectives of geography, animal conservation, and sustainability skills, students develop their vision of how to make the world a better place.

Internship & Work Experience – Students are immersed in experiences that allow them to experience the world of work and responsibilities of adulthood. In addition to the actual work experience, students develop leadership skills to gain confidence about college and career readiness.

Travel/Cultural – This mixed group focuses on allowing students to expand who they are by traveling and experiencing different cultures. The focus may be on sailing, art, cultural immersion, music or other areas.

Some programs have a religious focus while others are secular. Hybrids combine aspects of different categories. As programs vary in length, a structured year could involve several courses.

Critics bemoan the elitism required for parents to fund an additional year prior to college, and with the rising prices of higher education, make gap years only available for higher income families. Also, voluntourism can perpetuate cycles of learned helplessness when agencies don’t develop models of sustainability in the counties served. By far, the largest criticism is that participating countries may exploit students as they use their services/labor to extend government budgets while denying jobs to residents living in poverty.

As with all investments of time and money, it’s best for families to carefully consider what works for their needs. If taking a gap year is determined to be an advantage, then investigate the history and service of any organization offering gap programs. Talk with those who have completed gap programs. Ask what they learned? Seek out independent reviews of companies offering services. Explore the options and the focuses of different companies. Determine the needs of the person who will participate to determine if companies meet specified goals for the gap year.



Kira J. Holt, M.A.H.S. blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Her books on college planning – common sense planning for the 98% can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2. Kira works as an Independent College Consultant and can be reached at KiraJaneneHolt@gmail.com.

Take a Look at Texas Lutheran University

Take a Look at Texas Lutheran University

Texas Lutheran University is a small, private liberal arts college located in the sleepy town of Seguin, Texas – 35 miles east of San Antonio and 50 miles south of Austin. Approximately 1300 students can choose from 28 majors and 37 minors. TLU participates in Division III sports and approximately a third of students participate in school athletics. Go Bulldogs! I think most students attending will find their entertainment on campus or in the big cities listed above or mid-sized adjacent towns of San Marcos and New Braunfels.

On the campus tour, we walked into a biology lab where the professor was setting up for an upcoming lab. He was open, approachable, engaging, and pleased with the work of his students. When asked what he enjoyed most about his lab, he replied with the great equipment and the small lab size that allowed for interaction with students. He followed us out into the hall to point out winning posters that students had created to showcase their field research from the previous year. Also catching my attention was a note on the door entering the science building that read a plant sale was taking place of plants used in experiments. Part of me thought how nice to recycle plants after their use, but I also couldn’t help but imagining Little Shop of Horrors.

Our tour guide was nice, polite, answered our questions, and seemed to be involved in lots of campus activities. As we moved from building to building, the campus grounds were pretty and well-maintained. I didn’t find the buildings visually exciting or ornate, but that could be keeping with Lutheran tradition.

What I found most interesting in their literature was a directness on the cost of attending along with an academic scholarship grid that is a great tool to guide families with information of approximate merit aid. I think it would be great and transparent if every college published this  Tuition and fees in 2016-17 were $28,910 and total cost for the year was $38,630. Their average SAT score was 1528 on the old 2400 scale.

TLU has a variety of application deadlines and will even accept a few students after their last deadline on a space-available basis. TLU has received national attention from a variety of college ranking systems. From their brochures:

No.2 “Best Regional College” in the West 2016 – U.S. News & World Report rankings

2015 “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” from Washington Monthly College Rankings

2015 Best Western College by The Princeton Review

President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll member since 2012

Great Colleges to Work for by The Chronicle of Higher Education since 2012

Check out all the good things happening at Texas Lutheran University at http://www.tlu.edu/. I think it’s one of those undervalued, hidden college gems providing a quality liberal arts education.

Kira Janene Holt writes and blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Find her books on college planning at https://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2/.

Tour St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas

Tour St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas


Undergraduate enrollment is 2309 and has a total enrollment of 3625. Tuition was $28,200.00 for 2016 – 17 while room and board averaged $9300.00. Acceptance rate was 55% and students were accepted on a rolling basis. Average ACT score was 22. SAT was 1042 for combined CR and Math. Student to faculty ration is 12:1 and 94% of faculty hold terminal degrees.

St. Mary’s University is located on 135 acres west-southwest of downtown San Antonio, Texas. Most students live on campus since there is limited rental housing within close proximity to campus although there are two city metro bus stops on campus so public transportation is available. Surrounding neighborhood looks working class with duplexes and single family dwellings. One of three Marianist universities worldwide, their commitment to service learning and servant leadership is evident in displays in their main administrative building as well as in other locations on campus.

The student guide plans graduating in December of 2017 and knew many students. She was a Resident Assistant (RA) too which made me curious about her work-study. Her work study had been in admissions her freshman year, and since RAs were ineligible for work-study, admission hired her outright for tours. Interesting! I’m always curious about who is conducting a tour since they are school ambassadors.

All students are required to take a core curriculum as well as something I’ll describe as a freshmen experience class. Core curriculum is taught by faculty within the four colleges and slanted toward that college. The example given was that algebra was taught within a nutrition focus by one professor within the humanities and social sciences college. This concept allows students to cluster within specific buildings for most of their academic content as well as learn in context in meaningful manner. The Science, Engineering, and Technology Program even has their own dorms that encourage a peer mentoring between upper and lower division students.

Ethics and research are stressed throughout the undergraduate experience. All students are required to undertake research projects with their professors during their career although multiple research projects are encouraged. All students are required to present one research project at a conference or symposium. Students complete a service learning project during their stay as well as a capstone course their senior year.

Architecture is a blend of Victorian, 1920’s art deco, and mid-20th century. New dorms are currently under construction with suite concept. There is currently one suite-style dorm on campus and an over-21 dorm, although it is primarily inhabited by law students. Alcohol is permitted on campus and they have a pub on that also serves non-alcoholic beverages and acts as a hub for their Division II sports and San Antonio Spurs games.

It’s a pretty campus with lots of green space amid a sub-tropical landscape. What impressed me? Everyone was very friendly. I asked campus police for directions to visitor parking and he drove to the correct location. Nice! Upon leaving my car, I pulled out my phone for building name. A man wearing a Nolte Dame cap stopped and asked if I needed help. He taught there, and though retired, had been on faculty since the 1960s. A second professor walked up and the first said he had taught the second. An older woman walked past and the first professor had taught her too.

I inquired of his retirement. He’s in charge of a project on the Saint John Bible, the first fully-commissioned bible since the Guttenberg press that is hand-written and color-illustrated. There are under 300 copies and two are on campus. Others are in museums/churches around the world. I made a point of seeking out the bibles.

The campus feel was friendly and supportive. I asked if they were associated with Brothers of Holy Cross since the priest/professor wore a Notre Dame cap. That’s how I obtained a lesson on Marianist philosophy and its embedding throughout curriculum. I asked what was the most important admission piece for an aspiring student to St. Mary’s and told that beyond the academic work, a demonstration of service was valued. They seek well-rounded students. Admissions also seeks students with an academic spike who may be lacking in other areas with hopes of developing those non-academic skills.


US News & World Report Rankings: #21 in Regional Universities West; #12 in Best Colleges for Veterans; #3 in Best Value Schools.

With a score of 99 out of 100, the Brookings Institute awarded St. Mary’s the 17th-highest value-added score in the nation with respect to mid-career salary. This score is the highest in San Antonio and right behind Rice University for best in Texas. https://www.stmarytx.edu/


Kira Janene Holt writes and blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Find her books on college planning at https://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2/.

For-profit vs. Non-profit Colleges: Are the Lines Blurring or is it Just Me?

For-profit vs. Non-profit Colleges: Are the Lines Blurring or is it Just Me?

I’m always on the lookout for innovations in higher education, and with technology changing all aspects of life as we used to know it, higher education will continue changing. For instance, many students take classes online. Some may take a course or two online while attending college as others complete their whole degree without ever setting foot onto a brick and mortar campus. In fact, two of my current favorites are Western Governor’s University (totally online and competency-based) and Arizona State University’s pay if you pass freshman year program.

I’ve worked in higher education a long time and have my bias. I’ll admit it. One of them is for-profit colleges. Overall, I don’t care for their model. Really! I would never send anyone to one. Their first business principal is to make money for shareholders. And many, while providing education, don’t seem to be placing much emphasis on the learning that takes place or the well-being of the student. In fact, as the federal government started withholding financial aid, colleges started closing.

So here’s a conundrum. Non-profit colleges are raking in money too. Hopefully they’re reinvesting in students and services, but with ever-rising tuition, it feels like a gouge. That’s why I urge students and parents to become wise consumers of higher education. Figure out their goals so they are better able to make wise choices.

Now there seems to be a hybrid model of for-profit colleges – those that unabashedly make money while providing an educational experience. Several that leave me scratching my head are Grand Canyon University, University of Phoenix, and now Minerva Schools at KGI.

Let’s take them one at a time:

I’ve not really been a fan of University of Phoenix. Several friends have taught for them and the consensus was they paid low adjunct wages and students didn’t want to work as hard as the instructor thought they needed to for a grade. That said, they were one of the first out there filling the need of education that worked with adult schedules as opposed to traditional schools that wanted students to quit jobs to adhere to limited class offerings. Good thing that’s changed!

Now Grand Canyon University has a campus as well as online programs. Within their campus, they have Division II sports teams and are hoping to enter the WAC. That’s certainly not what one expects from a for-profit. They’re tuition for on-campus classes competes with non-profit colleges. They’re accredited. They make money via their online classes. But guess what? Non-profit colleges make money online too. Online is the latest cash cow. I know as I’ve paid out big bucks for online classes. I have a daily Google search on Grand Canyon because it’s one of my favorite places; I mean the real Grand Canyon – the hole in the ground. Consequently I receive notifications about GC University’s stock and growth projections. If they paid dividends, I might even invest as it seems to be poised for growth in 2017.

Minerva Schools at KGI looks like a new arena, a new concept – the world as the classroom. Students attend the first year at their San Fran campus and then travel to a new world city every semester with a small cohort of students. London, Berlin, Seoul, Buenos Aires – living in the culture and solving real-world issues via critical and creative thinking skills. Wow! Accredited! Detractors point to less than 2% acceptance rate in the first two classes and their saying they are a prestigious alternative to an Ivy League education. Saying it doesn’t make it so. I’m not even sure if they are for-profit or not-for-profit because their website say non-profit while reviews say they are for-profit.

Has the whole for-profit vs. non-profit argument run its course? I worked for a non-profit for 18 years, Let me tell you, there was a whole lot of talk about making money. For-profits often give tremendous amounts of money away too. Look at company foundations as an example. The lines feel as if they’re blurring in my mind.

Here’s the deal: I’m confused. I can’t make up my mind even though I read about colleges and college choices daily. Innovations in education or new wrinkle in scams? Sour grapes from tradition educators? And here’s a link to a news brief that came in on outcomes of student performance comparisons between for-profit school graduates vs. non-profit college graduates. http://www.educationdive.com/news/report-some-for-profit-students-outperform-peers-from-traditional-institut/433719/

I know for sure that higher education is one of many businesses that will continue to change as technology advances. Now, maybe more than ever, it’s up to students and parents to educate themselves on potential higher education choices. Start by deciding educational goals, needs, and affordability. The old adage, Buyer Beware, stays in play, whatever choices made.


Kira Janene Holt writes and blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Find her books on college planning at https://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2/.


College Readiness – It’s in the Math

College Readiness – It’s in the Math

What academic courses do high school students need to take to be pass their college courses when they arrive on campus? That’s the $10,000 question since scholarships are tied to students passing their courses. It seems a waste for students and parents to invest time, energy, and money in the whole college planning process only to find that when students arrive on campus, they’re not ready to do the work required in classes. The harsh reality is many students find themselves overwhelmed by the amount of academic content covered in college.

Here’s the bottom line: Students need to take as much and as rigorous of a schedule of academic content as they can in high school to be prepared for college. I recommend four years of English, math, social sciences, and hard sciences. Additionally, many colleges require courses of foreign language and computer science (sometimes counted as a foreign language).

For years, I spoke to secondary school leaders about using data to improve instructional practices. The truth is parents and students can use data to make informed decisions too. Data informs us, and the drama of the college preparation dilemma plays out most dramatically when looking at math standardized test scores.

ACT reports out math scores by students’ self-reported course taking patterns. Here are math scores for the graduating class of 2016:


What does this information tell us? In general terms, the more math a student takes and the more rigorous the math courses are, the better the student does on the ACT math portion. That makes sense as The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test. More math = more math knowledge = higher math scores.

Did you know that ACT also publishes math college readiness scores? The benchmark for predicted academic success in College Algebra, typically the first class that will count toward graduation and not considered a remedial class, is 22. That means a 50% chance of making a grade of B or a 75% chance of making a C.

Let’s look at the three largest population groups in math taking patterns reported by students:

Other comb of 4 or more year of Math – 33% of students take this pattern with an average math score of 23.6

Alg1, Alg2, Geo, & Other Adv Math – 18% of students take this pattern with an average math score of 19.3

Alg1, Alg2, Geo – 12% of student take this pattern with an average math score of 16.8.

Three years of math, starting with Algebra 1 in high school, doesn’t make a student ready for college algebra. Students taking this math sequence in high school could be placed in remedial math in college.

Students who are taking advanced math courses do better on the ACT math test. What are the advanced courses? Many students take Algebra 1 in grade 8 so they can take more advanced math in high school. Although I can’t be certain, I’m going to take a leap of faith and write that students may be checking other combinations of 4 years of math because they’re taking AP or IB math courses. Maybe their fourth year of math is labeled as Pre-Calculus at their high school.

Here’s the point I. If students are not taking four years of rigorous math in high school, and worse, if they are only taking three years of math in high school, neither they nor their parents should be surprised when the student is placed in remedial math in college.

Do the work in high school or do it in college. Do the remedial work in college and be prepared to pay the tuition for a class that doesn’t count toward graduation.

You do the math!        


If you want to learn about other ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, visit https://www.act.org/content/act/en/education-and-career-planning/college-and-career-readiness-standards/benchmarks.html

Kira Janene Holt writes and blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Find her books on college planning at https://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2/.

College Essay – You, the Hero, Take a Journey

College Essay – You, the Hero, Take a Journey

Haven’t started your college essay yet and it’s due soon. Oops! I know you meant start weeks ago, but life got in the way and now it seems like a daunting task. Let’s see if this helps.

What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite fictional story or book? Mine is Wizard of Oz. In fact, I have the DVD from Netflix and watched it five times over Christmas. What’s so great about this classic? It’s the same story with Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker – Hero Takes a Journey. In fact, the hero takes a journey and its cousin, stranger comes to town, are two themes that form the basis of most fictional books and movies. When hero’s bloom or stranger’s arrive, things start shaken.

From left to right, Clara Blandick, Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton and Charley Grapewin star in the MGM film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1939. In this scene, Almira Gulch arrives to take Dorothy’s dog Toto away for termination, after he bit her. (Photo by MGM Studios/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

You’re the hero in your essay and you are called to action. Dorothy was called to action when Miss Gulch took Toto. Harry Potter was called when Hogwarts accepted him even when he didn’t know he’d applied. If neither had responded to the call, there wouldn’t have been a movie, right?

Heroes face obstacles and challenges that must be overcome. Dorothy had to find her way to Oz and take the broom away from the Wicked Witch. Harry had to keep himself safe from those who wanted to kill him. Each learned something during their adventure. Both had external as well as internal growth. Harry gained the confidence in his abilities to defeat the dark powers. Dorothy learned that home was where she belonged.

You get the idea, right? You, the hero, take a journey in your essay. You don’t have to land in Oz or fly to Hogwarts to be a hero. Let me demonstrate with a sentence outline:

I used to work at a fast food restaurant and ate there every time I worked.

We used to put dull pennies in the hot sauce for a few minutes until they turned shiny.

We joked about what it was doing to our stomachs. (Call to Action) I became concerned.

I researched information about fast food for a school paper I had to write. (Begin journey) Boy, was I surprised at what I learned.

I quit. It took a while but I found a job in a natural grocery store so I could learn healthier eating.

I haven’t eaten fast food since. I lost twenty pounds and my acne cleared.

People noticed. I started talking about food choices and its impact on weight and skin. Some people made joked but others listened. (obstacles)

A few of us started bringing lunches and then started a nutrition club at our high school. We are working toward healthier food choices in the cafeteria. The cooks weren’t interested at first because they were used to their style of cooking. People from the natural grocery store came and gave training on healthier cooking.

I want to major in nutrition in college so I can continue helping people with healthy food choices. (resolution) Boy, I’m happy I learned about pennies in hot sauce.

Do you see that one event, putting pennies into hot sauce, started a chain of events that led to both external and internal changes? Bonus points for starting a club and bringing people from the community into the school. That demonstrated leadership and communication skills without blatantly writing that you’re a leader who knows how to communicate (It’s show, don’t tell).

Okay, what have you got? Doesn’t have to be big. The truth is it’s often the small things that provide big lessons. Where have you been called to adventure?

Dorothy learned home was where she wanted to be. Harry learned he had the courage to meet his fears.

Just to point this out in case you didn’t notice: I didn’t start with the essay. I wrote sentences, sixteen sentences, that formed a story foundation. From those sentences, I’ll add information and images to flesh out the essay. Truth is, with sixteen sentences I’m almost halfway finished. Colleges don’t want a book.

Last tip. Writing is rewriting. Once you’ve written sentences and added to them, let the paper rest. Come back and you’ll be surprised what you will want to add (and delete). Repeat three or four times to build your essay into one that stands out from the students who rushed through their writing. The application reader will know! And once you have this basic story, you will find you can shape it to fit most college application essays.

Why? They want personal stories about what makes you a hero.

Kira Janene Holt writes and blogs on college planning at www.CollegePlanCoach.com. Find her books on college planning at https://www.amazon.com/Kira-Janene-Holt/e/B006Q9ZCZ2/. Ask her questions or suggest blog topics at KiraJaneneHolt@gmail.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/kirajaneneholt