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The Many Ways to Open Doors

Getting To College

Larry Goshorn carries a spreadsheet with him the way other fathers carry credit cards. On it is the key to getting each of his six children a bachelor's degree from a top public university for under $6,000.

His secret? Start with community college.

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The former college instructor has figured out how his children can transfer to the University of California at San Diego with nearly three years completed. He is also convinced that smaller community-college classes will offer them better instruction in core courses. And he won't end up in the poorhouse.

"This is a concept that needs to get out," Mr. Goshorn says. "People could do this in other states. Just imagine if every family of six could save a million dollars and three years off their children's lives - assuming the children want to do it?"

While their family education plan is breathtaking in its complexity, the Goshorn children are hardly alone in taking a different route to their first year of college.

Tensions run high this month as 1.7 million high school seniors hover by the mailbox awaiting word from colleges accepting or rejecting them for fall admission. Most will scoot straight to their freshman year. But there are other options.

A small but growing number of high school seniors are taking roads less traveled to reach the four-year degree they want. Tight finances, academic fatigue, or the need to boost credentials in the intense competition to get into top-tier colleges are all motivating factors.

For some who excelled in high school under high pressure, a "gap" year on a South Pacific island helping carve a canoe may be just the ticket. For others, a year brushing up credentials at an elite prep school might be a possibility. The need to make or stretch dollars may encourage still others to alter their academic trajectory toward a four-year degree.

In case of the Goshorn family, California makes it easy for their plan to succeed. Community-college credits there are completely transferable within the state's university system, as they are in many other states. There is even a guaranteed-admission program if a high grade-point average is maintained.

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By pinching every inch of the system, the Goshorn children will be able to transfer to UC San Diego - one of the state's best public universities - as a junior if they start taking classes before graduating from high school. No need to apply. Their MiraCosta Community College credentials gain them entry.

Rachel Goshorn likes the idea. She graduated from high school in 1996 and will graduate next spring from UC San Diego with a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics. Though she did not take college courses in high school, as her younger siblings have started to do, she will finish in three years for a cost of $6,000.

"It was an excellent way to go," she says. "I've grown as a person. I didn't want to go to a huge university after high school. At MiraCosta I made friends and met teachers, and that helped my confidence."

A year to catch your breath

Of course, saving money on a rocket-sled ride through community college and university, as the Goshorn kids are doing, is just one route.

Long a fixture in Europe, a year of preparation for college after high school is favored by some American students, parents, and many college educators. Interest in it is growing despite heightened pressure for students to "get going" to college and parental concerns that a year away might mean a child will never go at all.

"We encourage students, once they've been accepted, to come back after a year of experiencing life outside of academia," says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. About 55 to 60 students annually out of 2,300 freshmen defer enrollment one year, he says - up from 30 to 40 five years ago. "We are going to see more of this as pressure mounts in high school," he says. "Many of these kids are worn down and need that time off."

Nick Leeming worked around the clock to earn good grades at a top prep school in New Hampshire. But while perusing more than 20 colleges during his senior year, he found himself oddly unexcited. He was "burned out" but didn't realize it, he says.

His parents noticed, however. Susan and Ned Leeming did something many other parents consider anathema: They suggested he take time off. "We didn't want him living at home and working at MacDonald's," Mrs. Leeming says. "But we thought there might be something that would benefit him other than charging off to college."

Nick himself was thunderstruck. He had already been accepted at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and was skeptical. "I had always just planned to go straight to college," he says. "I'm glad I didn't. My time off was definitely a turning point in my life."

Figuring out what to do was the big question. He didn't want to sit on the beach. Finally, his hunt for something substantial led him to Cornelius Bull and the Center for Interim Programs in Cambridge, Mass.

As a headmaster for 18 years, Dr. Bull says he saw kids marching off to college "without the foggiest notion what they were doing there." He began, for a fee, helping high school graduates figure out interesting things that could be done in exchange for room and board.

Nick prowled through more than 3,000 different interim options in Bull's database of contacts and programs - from working with a musher in the Yukon, to farm work in northern Japan, to construction work in a sixth-century Syrian monastery.

Finally, he decided to help build a two-story log cabin by hand in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and spend a month in New York working with a professional photographer in return for room and board. In mid-January, he went to Micronesia for three months, filling air tanks at a dive shop and assisting on dives.

When he went to college, he was ready. He graduated magna cum laude from Tufts and was hired by a global investment-banking firm that appreciated his understanding of different cultures.

"One of the main things I hung onto is my perception of the world," he says. "It's much more of a macro picture than when I studied at a tiny boarding school in New Hampshire. You realize there are other ways people live and that those are acceptable."

Unlike Nick, Katie Donaghy was filled with doubts about college her senior year. When she finally told friends she was taking a year off, the peer pressure almost made her reverse course. Instead, she graduated, grabbed her tiny savings, and made her way to Nepal.

Living with a family in a mud home with no heat or running water, she ate rice meals while seated on the dirt floor. She taught English to Tibetan refugees and found herself working with street children and beggars. The adventure transformed her. "I was a cheerleader in high school and thought I wanted to be a cheerleader in college, too," she says. "But I decided to do things totally differently - I discovered I have a passion for teaching."

Ms. Donaghy was accepted at four colleges before she left and has applied at four more since returning a few weeks ago. She says she will be a better student now that she has some "life experiences." Others agree.

"Those who take a year off arrive at college much more prepared and with a broader view of the world - if they spent their year in a productive pursuit," says Jane Brown, dean of enrollment at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. If possible, she recommends applying, getting accepted, then deferring enrollment.

Or maybe a fifth year of high school

For students with less burnished academic credentials, the answer may be going back for a "fifth year" of academic training at elite prep schools like Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Officials there report a steady rise in a "post graduate" work. But guidance counselors often recommend this only for bright students who didn't work to their potential.

For students who might have been rejected by a competitive college, but who came close to getting in, a year off could give them an admissions edge, says Ron Lieber, co-author of "Taking Time Off," a book about students who enjoyed successful breaks.

"Think about that bleary-eyed admissions officer looking at the 1,000th application of some student who belongs to sports clubs and has good grades," Mr. Lieber says. "Then they see someone who's taken a year to work or travel. You look like a risk taker - and that appeals."

But Michele Hernandez - author of "A is for Admission," a book about getting into top colleges -has a warning. "Just taking a year off for a photo safari with your parents isn't impressive," says the former assistant admissions director at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "Whatever you do should have an academic theme or show intellectual curiosity. Those things set you apart, but still won't make up for bad grades."

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