Malia Obama will take a gap year, then attend Harvard in 2017

President Obama and older daughter Malia step off Air Force One last month outside Washington.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/ Getty Images)

Malia Obama will take a gap year after graduating from high school and then attend Harvard University in the fall of 2017, the White House said Sunday, a decision that frees her from the scrutiny of arriving on campus while her father is still president.

Obama, 17, the older of the president’s two daughters, visited more than a dozen schools, including Stanford, Yale and Columbia, before making her decision. The White House did not say what she would spend her gap year doing, and an official familiar with the situation said she is still considering her options. A Harvard spokeswoman confirmed Malia had been admitted beginning in 2017.

Students who take a gap year after high school typically use the time to travel overseas, volunteer, work or explore special interests. It’s a well-regarded way to catch one’s breath before four or more years of university study, and a detour that Harvard and other top universities encourage.


In Malia’s case, waiting to start college until her father is out of office could mean more privacy for her. The tall, poised teenager will be one of the most famous members of her class — and a standout for the Secret Service agents who will be in tow, even after her father leaves office in January of 2017.

The older Obama daughter was 10 when he took the highest office in the land. Now a senior at the elite Sidwell Friends School in northwest Washington, she has come of age with the world watching. Her sister, Sasha, 14, is wrapping up her freshman year at the private school.

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff for First Lady Laura Bush, said Sunday she thought it was “terrific” for Malia to take a year off. Elite Washington schools such as Sidwell can be pressure cookers, so gap years give young people “an opportunity to do something a little bit different that still enhances their educational experience,” said McBride, executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington and the mother of two teenagers herself.

Choosing what to do after high school graduation is a “big decision,” McBride said, lauding Malia for appearing to make a choice that is right for her by taking a gap year, a move that is “more common than it used to be.”

Malia’s grades and standardized test scores remain closely guarded secrets, but factors in her favor in gaining admission to Harvard included her family background, study at top-flight schools and a unique upbringing that was bound to make for a remarkable college essay.

Her parents, both Harvard Law grads, have four Ivy League degrees between them. First Lady Michelle Obama graduated from Harvard Law in 1988, and her husband followed in 1991. He completed undergraduate studies at Columbia University in 1983. She graduated from Princeton in 1985.


Several U.S. presidents in addition to Obama attended Harvard, the private school in Cambridge, Mass., founded in 1636. George W. Bush got a Harvard M.B.A., and John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Rutherford B. Hayes, John Quincy Adams and John Adams all went to the school.

Harvard has not been a destination for presidential sons and daughters in recent years, though Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, graduated from Radcliffe College, which is now part of Harvard.

This year, the cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is $45,278 for tuition and $60,659 for tuition, room, board and fees combined, according to its website.

The president, speaking at a Des Moines high school last fall about college access and affordability, said he knew that finding the best school was a “tough process” because his daughter was “going through it right now.”

“You guys are juggling deadlines and applications and personal statements,” he told the audience.

He called his daughter a “hard worker” and said he advised her “not to stress too much about having to get into one particular college.”


He said there were a lot of good schools and “just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”

The elder Obama child is said to be an aspiring filmmaker. She plays tennis for fun.

She took a look in 2014 at two rival schools in Northern California — Stanford University and UC Berkeley — and later shifted attention to schools on the East Coast.

Media reports show she inspected six of the eight Ivy League schools: Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale. She also paid stops to New York University, Tufts University, Barnard College and Wesleyan University.

Born in Chicago on July 4, 1998, Malia Obama attended the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools before she and her family entered the White House in 2009.

The first of the first daughters made headlines in August 2014 when, bicycling with her parents while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, she donned a Stanford T-shirt. Some thought her choice was made.

The last two presidential children in the White House, twins Barbara and Jenna Bush, were spared major media scrutiny as they chose their colleges. They already were enrolled by the time their father won the presidency in 2000, Barbara at Yale and Jenna at the University of Texas at Austin.


During Bill Clinton’s presidency, his daughter, Chelsea, went from Sidwell Friends, a Quaker-affiliated prep school, to Stanford, choosing the place where her friend (and future husband) Marc Mezvinsky already was in attendance.

Chelsea Clinton graduated from Stanford in 2001 and later obtained a master’s degrees and doctorate from Oxford University in England and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Foreign study could be in Malia Obama’s future; her mother once said she would like her daughters to study abroad but isn’t pushing it.

Judging by the teen’s internships, television is an interest.

She interned last summer in New York City on the Brooklyn set of HBO’s “Girls,” the comedy-drama created by and starring Lena Dunham and was in California in 2014 as a production assistant on “Extant,” a since-canceled CBS sci-fi drama featuring Halle Berry.

She also completed several internships closer to home at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, her mother has said.

One region of the country she seems to have skipped on her far-flung college tour: her native Midwest.


The president and first lady have said they will not return to Chicago, where they have a home, but will remain in Washington after his term ends in January. That would allow younger daughter Sasha to finish studies at Sidwell in the spring of 2019.

“We’ve got to find a place to live because we can’t live here,” Michelle Obama told a group of children at the White House last month. “They’re kicking us out!”

Twitter: @KatherineSkiba


Student test scores have stalled nationally. What can be done about it?


Why the new SAT isn’t as transparent as the College Board wants you to believe

UC Davis chancellor’s troubles raise a question: How could such a brilliant woman stumble so badly?


10:23 a.m.: This story was updated with comment from Anita McBride, former chief of staff for First Lady Laura Bush.

9:50 a.m.: This story was updated with confirmation from Harvard that Malia Obama was admitted beginning in 2017.

9 a.m.: This story was updated with background on gap years.

8:33 a.m.: This story was updated with background on Harvard.

This story was originally published at 8:02 a.m.