Helping students succeed in college—by putting it off

Amber Scott’s mission—to give first-generation and low-income college students the tools for a successful student career—is not unique. But her means is unorthodox and, at first glance, counterintuitive: She helps students not start college right away. Her Atlanta-based company, Leap Year, is retooling the gap year and transforming vulnerable students’ post-high school path from tenuous to surefooted.

College was particularly meaningful to Newton, Massachusetts-raised Scott—her mother was the first in the family’s history to attend. “In just one generation, education shifted the whole trajectory of our family,” Scott says. “For us, it went from, ‘Are you going to college?’ to ‘What college are you going to?’”

Scott went to Smith College, majoring in neuroscience with ambitions of becoming a vet—until a summer studying wildlife management in Kenya prompted her to change course. She was deeply affected by the challenges that climate change presented for the developing community she was living and working in. After returning to Smith for her senior year, she applied for 100 Projects for Peace, a national competition that awarded a $10,000 grant to a student with the winning peace-promoting initiative. Scott’s proposal—to build a common well between two tribes that were often in conflict because of water scarcity—won, and on the day after graduation, she was on a plane back to Kenya to implement her strategy.

“I knew I wanted to spend my career trying to build impact in our communities,” says Leap Year’s Amber Scott.

“I saw the impact, appreciation, and value that the well created,” she says of the experience. By the time she landed back in the U.S., she says, “I knew I wanted to spend my career trying to build impact in our communities.”

Several years later, she had experience at a number of nonprofits (as well as an MBA from Ohio State University) under her belt. But pieces of an idea, partly honed through experience in the Atlanta public school system and educational consulting gigs, kept resurfacing in her mind. She knew which puzzle the pieces belonged to: “How can I bridge first-generation and low-income students’ readiness for college academically and socially?” But she had never quite been able to fit the fragments together. “I finally had a back-of-the-envelope moment where I sat down and said, ‘How do I really do this?’”

Scott knew the stats—only one in 10 first-generation college students were graduating—and the contributing factors: systemic inequality and an inadequate support system. But one thing still perplexed her. “If we know that low-income and first-gen students are less prepared for college,” she remembers thinking, “then why are we always saying, ‘Go straight to college when you graduate?’ What if we gave first-gen students the opportunity that a lot of wealthy students have: to take a gap year and go to college when they feel prepared?”

Determined to redefine the gap year, Scott built Leap Year’s program: a 40-hour-a-week endeavor in which students participate in community service by tutoring elementary school students, complete college-readiness courses, and in some cases, take college classes and earn credits before enrolling in a full-time schedule. “That’s a big deal because for our students, diving into a full semester of classes is really overwhelming. This way they get to be a college student, but they’re doing it as a group with the [Leap Year] community. When they start classes officially on their own, it’s not as scary.”

Scott, based at Atlanta’s WeWork Colony Square, is also encouraged by America’s changing perception of the gap year, partly brought about by the high-profile proponent: former first daughter Malia Obama, who deferred admission to Harvard for a year to work at the U.S. embassy in Spain and work in the entertainment industry. She started her freshman year in 2017. “I was so excited when she did that,” says Scott. “Black-ish also did an episode taking on the idea of, ’Oh, [a gap year] is only something white people do.’ No—you can do a gap year, and it can be really beneficial as long as you’re focused on your goals.”

Among Leap Year’s many fans is one particularly close to Scott—her mom. “She was the first investor!” Scott laughs. “I actually called her today to get her advice. She’s really good at helping me think about how you don’t want to grow fast, you want to grow right. You want to build an organization that’s really going make an impact.”

Top photo by Nick Burchell

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