School & District Management

Research Suggests a ‘Gap Year’ Motivates Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 15, 2010 5 min read
Aliza Goldberg listens during a Vietnamese language class at Columbia University in New York on Sept. 15. Goldberg deferred enrollment at Columbia University's Barnard College at the start of the 2009 school year, choosing instead to spend a year in a study abroad program in Vietnam instead.

As policymakers ponder how to get students to complete college, some parents and researchers suggest a counterintuitive strategy: Encourage students to take time off school after graduation.

The concept of a gap or bridge year—usually involving six months to a year of travel, service learning, or other experiential programs—appears to be taking hold in the United States after decades of use in Europe and Australia. Moreover, new research suggests time off may help students become more motivated to complete a degree after they come home.

In the Journal of Educational Psychology last month, University of Sidney researcher Andrew J. Martin conducted two studies on the academic motivation and performance of more than 2,800 high school and college students. He found that Australian students were more likely to take a gap year if they had low academic performance and motivation in high school. Yet former “gappers” reported significantly higher motivation in college—in the form of “adaptive behavior” such as planning, task management, and persistence—than did students who did not take a gap year.

“Findings from the two studies suggest that participation in a gap year may be one means of addressing the motivational difficulties that might have been present at school,” Mr. Martin writes in the study.

The most recent statistics from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics, show that, across the United States, just 7.6 percent of 2003-04 graduates delayed their entry to college for a year. Of those, 84 percent reported working and 29 percent traveled or pursued other interests, both of which could include gap programs. Unlike the Australian researchers, however, the NCES found students who delayed entry to college were less likely to complete a degree, although Aurora D’Amico, a researcher for its postsecondary, adult, and career education division, said the NCES does not formally break out results for gap-year participants.

Not Yet College-Ready

Anecdotally, though, there is some evidence to suggest the idea may be catching on in the United States. Moreover, the Australian researcher’s conclusions seem to ring true for some parents, students, and educators who have had some familiarity with gap years.

“I think more parents every year are starting to come to terms with the notion that life for themselves and their kid isn’t going to end if the kid isn’t in a college freshman class two months after high school,” said Reid Goldstein, whose daughter is in the Arlington, Va., school system. He started organizing panel discussions on gap-year options for that district’s Parent Teacher Association Family Network after having difficulty getting information for his older daughter.

“The schools have figured out that the number of seniors going to college is their success metric, but … they don’t follow those kids to college,” Mr. Goldstein said. “They don’t see those kids binge drinking or dropping out or doing any of those things that show they are in the wrong place at that time.”

Linda H. Connelly, a post-high school counselor at New Trier Township High School District 203, near Chicago, agreed. “We found we were counseling everybody to [go to] college, and we were finding a lot of these students were just not ready to go on,” Ms. Connelly said. “The parents wanted them out of the house, and we wanted to give students another option.”

Her department started a “gap fair” five years ago with six programs and a handful of families; this year, it drew 30 programs and more than 400 people from across Chicago. While the vast majority of her students in this affluent area still go straight to college, Ms. Connelly said the programs have proved helpful to motivate both students who aren’t yet mature enough for college and burned-out overachievers.

“Taking gap time can really save a lot of the floundering around that students do,” said Holly Bull, the president of the Princeton, N.J.-based Center for Interim Programs, which studies gap-year programs and counsels students on options. “Changing majors, changing schools … it gets very pricey to be confused in college.”

Elite colleges including Princeton, Harvard, and Yale universities all encourage deferments for gap years; Princeton has expanded its in-house gap year program from 20 to 100 students annually performing a year of service work abroad.

Charting a Future

There has been no study of U.S. students that is similar to Mr. Martin’s, but Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, the co-authors of the 2005 book The Gap Year Advantage, have conducted a study of 280 recent gap-year alumni in America, which Mr. Haigler said echoes the findings from the Australian study. In research they plan to release in a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Gap Year, American Style, Mr. Haigler and Ms. Nelson found that students reported their top-two reasons for taking a gap year were burnout and wanting to “find out more about themselves.” Moreover, nine out of 10 students returned to college within a year, and 60 percent reported the time off had either inspired or confirmed their choice of career or academic major.

Aliza Goldberg, now a freshman at Barnard College at Columbia University, said her decision to take a break last year was a bit of both. After being granted early admission to Barnard to study languages, Ms. Goldberg heard about an opportunity to volunteer at the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. “I had no prior experience with East Asian languages (Vietnamese has six tones), I had no idea what Vietnamese art looked like, and the only Vietnamese history I knew was the war,” Ms Goldberg recalled. “The recklessness of the decision was thrilling.”

She spent one semester in Hanoi and another conducting maritime-history research, while at the same time blogging about her trips.

“A year ago, I thought I would double-major in archaeology and art history with a minor in Italian,” Ms. Goldberg said. “Now, I am utterly confused. I want to major in everything. The majority of my schedule was influenced by my gap year. I’m excited to see how they all meld together when I declare my major at the end of next year.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week

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