College & Workforce Readiness

Research Suggests a ‘Gap Year’ Motivates Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 21, 2010 4 min read
Freshman Aliza Goldberg attends Barnard College in New York City. She deferred her enrollment for a year in order to volunteer at an art museum in Vietnam, travel, and study languages and maritime history. She says her "gap year" experience influenced most of her course selections this year.
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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 motivate students to complete a degree after they come home.

In the Journal of Educational Psychology last month, University of Sidney researcher Andrew J. Martin reported on 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.

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 college entry for a year. Of those, 84 percent worked and 29 percent traveled or pursued other interests, both of which could include gap programs. Unlike Mr. Martin, however, the NCES found students who delayed college entry one year were half as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree, although Aurora D’Amico, a researcher for its postsecondary, adult, and career education division, said the NCES does not break out results formally for gap-year students.

Not Yet Ready

Anecdotally, there is some evidence to suggest the idea may be catching on in the United States. Moreover, the Australian study findings seem to ring true with parents, students, and educators who are familiar with the idea.

“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, an Arlington, Va., parent. 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,” she said. 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.

Likewise, 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 large-scale study of gap-year students in this country, but Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, the co-authors of the 2005 book, The Gap Year Advantage, have interviewed 280 recent gap-year alumni in America, and Mr. Haigler said the findings echo those of the Australian study. In a forthcoming book Mr. Haigler and Ms. Nelson say students reported their top two reasons for taking a gap year were burnout and wanting to “find out more about themselves.” Nine out of 10 students returned to college within a year; 60 percent said the time off had either inspired or confirmed their career choice or academic major.

Aliza Goldberg, a freshman at Barnard College in New York City, 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,” she said. “I had no idea what Vietnamese art looked like, and the only Vietnamese history I knew was the war.” She spent one semester in Hanoi and another conducting maritime-history research.

“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.”

Library Director Kathryn Dorko contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Scholars Suggest Adding ‘Gap Year’ May Encourage College Completion

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