When the world learned that Malia Obama had decided to attend Harvard University, we also learned that she had decided to take a gap year. Taking a year off between high school and college can benefit both the student and the community, which is why Sen. Bill Ferguson and I introduced legislation to create an innovative gap year program in Maryland. Maryland Corps (HB 1488/SB 909) would enable student participants to dedicate a year of service to a non-profit organization or government agency and receive both a stipend to offset their expenses and an educational scholarship. The legislation was passed in the General Assembly and is awaiting the governor's signature.

My daughter took off a year before beginning college to work for City Year, and it was absolutely the right thing for her to do. Spending a year as a teacher's aide in a third grade classroom in East Harlem, N.Y. was an incredible experience for a then-18 year old who thought she wanted to become a teacher. Working with children in a public school situated in a low-income community that had extraordinary challenges gave her new perspectives about the value and importance of education, service and income inequality, and it enabled her to reflect on her own educational experience in a new way. Not only did she mature in countless ways but she also gained insight into what direction she wanted her to studies to take, ultimately deciding not to pursue teaching. There is no question that she is a more engaged student having a much more meaningful college experience as a result of her gap year.


Not only would a gap year benefit students from privileged backgrounds like Malia Obama and my daughter, but it would also benefit students with less access to social capital and supports. According to research from Opportunity Nation, youth who participate in service acquire job-readiness and professional skills like collaboration, project management and problem solving are more likely to become adults who participate in civic life in service to their communities. Students with certain gap year experiences also demonstrate a higher level of persistence and success in college, with higher overall completion rates.

Nearly 87 percent of Maryland students graduate from high school, but not all of them go on to study at colleges and universities. In fact, thousands of them do not continue their education, despite research from the Economic Policy Institute in 2013 showing the lopsided earning potential of Americans with four-year college degrees compared to those without a degree: 98 percent more money per hour on average.

According to a February 2016 report from the organization Baltimore's Promise, the Baltimore region is home to over 42,000 youth who are neither in school nor working. What if these "opportunity youth" (dubbed for their capacity for growth and upward mobility) had a chance to learn skills that would help them be better students? I envision Maryland Corps' providing those essential supports and being a bridge to higher education.

According to Alan Khazei, founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc. and co-founder of City Year, "service is a great platform to help young people build social capital, become more civically engaged and increase their understanding of people of different races and backgrounds." Gap year service can also be a pipeline for public service careers, especially for minority alumni. AmeriCorps minority alumni were 18 percent more likely to be employed in public service careers than non-alumni.

While disparities in opportunity have long existed in Baltimore, the past year has brought a new spotlight of public attention as resources in many parts of our region are stretched thin. In addition to fulfilling essential needs in our community, service provides participants the venue for engagement on behalf of a cause larger than themselves.

Maryland Corps can be a model for the country. In the words of John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, "given the low levels of social trust, the public problems in need of human capital, high youth unemployment rates, the concerns about college affordability and our easy citizenship with low rates of volunteering and voting, the Maryland Corps could not come at a better time."

I couldn't agree more.

Del. Shelly Hettleman is a Baltimore County Democrat; her email is shelly.hettleman@house.state.md.us.