Study: ‘Gap year’ motivates students

Australian students who take a “gap year” after high school are much more motivated in college, according to two studies in the Journal of Educational Psychology.  From Education Week:

University of Sydney researcher Andrew J. Martin . . . 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.

While Europeans and Australians often take a gap year, only 7.6 percent of 2004 graduates in the U.S. delayed college entry for a year: 84 percent worked and 29 percent traveled or pursued other interests.

In the U.S., students who take a year off the academic track are less likely to complete a degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, co-authors of the 2005 book The Gap Year Advantage, are working on a new book tentatively titled The Gap Year, American Style, Ed Week reports.

. . . 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.

Students who’ll be the first in their families to college are urged not to step off the academic track for fear they’ll never get back on. But the “gap year” is catching on with affluent parents who are confident their high-achieving children will earn a degree.

“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,” said Linda Connelly, a counselor at New Trier High in suburban Chicago. “The parents wanted them out of the house, and we wanted to give students another option.” New Trier now holds a “gap” fair so students can learn about pre-college programs.

“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.”

I think many students would benefit from a year to grow up, explore and clarify their goals. Those who go to college after a gap year may work harder and party less. But others will drift away from their college goals.

If the gap year catches on in the U.S., we’re likely to see more serious college students and fewer lemmings — those who go to college only because everybody else is doing it. That sounds like a good outcome, but it will undercut the president’s goal of making the U.S. first in the world in college degrees.

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  1. Agreed on the filtering aspect of the gap year… especially if during that year students are expected to support themselves or contribute to the family. Some may find that they simply like to work retail or elsewhere and don’t need a college degree.

    I’d also say that our insistence on universal college education is responsible for the difference in the results of the gap year between us and Europe.

  2. Oh, come now. Socioeconomic status, anyone? Has anyone noticed the high probability that those students who plan to take a gap year are not likely to come from poor families, nor even middle class families? Also, the students may “feel” more mature and motivated, but I’m inclined to believe cold, hard statistics over the happy talk of people making a living selling books and paid appearances to parents of high school seniors.

    If a student spends the year traveling, studying at foreign universities (which do charge tuition), and volunteering at non-profits, someone is paying the bill. In most cases, it’s the parents. I must conclude that a gap year could be a much more expensive college experience, if one actually adds up all the costs incurred after high school graduation.

    A significant percentage of the Harvard students taking a gap year are “‘Z’ Students.” I recommend one reads this article. Daniel Golden also wrote about this program.

  3. Here in Texas we see significantly higher motivation among those students with 3 or 4 gap years spend “finding themselves” in the armed forces. They’re better behaved, too.

  4. “They’re better behaved, too.”

    Compared to which peer group? The troublemakers in the ROTC? If you were able to identify the students most likely to enlist after high school, you’d probably have a very disciplined and realistic group, in comparison to their peers. If you restrict that group to those students able to meet basic college admissions requirements, you’d end up with a group of students likely to be successful, whether they chose to enlist or enroll immediately after high school.

    Correlation is not causation. Intelligence and discipline will lead to success. Affluent parents don’t hurt. It’s important not to confuse the effect of a gap year (whatever that may be) with the strengths high school students may already possess.

    As for my children, I hope they will get through their education as quickly as possible. If they know they want to become doctors or get MBAs, combined programs to shorten the time at school are a great idea. Delaying one’s entry into the workforce, and the ability to support oneself, is not a good idea for most people. There is also the fact that female fertility lessens with age. If you want to have a family one day, drawing out the time in college and grad school makes it much harder to “beat the clock.” As with so many ideas in education, the little indulgences the wealthy can allow themselves aren’t necessarily a good idea for anyone who needs to take out student loans and pay off a mortgage.

  5. Cranberry-
    I’ve known quite a few individuals who were troublemakers in high school who were straightened out by the military. Usually these were diamonds-in-the-rough… children who grew up in chaotic homes but still had a good drive. They would not have done well at college right after graduation because they needed to have certain behaviors broken, but did well after serving.

  6. “I’ve known quite a few individuals who were troublemakers in high school who were straightened out by the military.”

    I agree with SuperSub. Aside from troublemaking, there are also major maturity issues, particularly for boys. My younger brother was not what you’d call a troublemaker, but he was an academic late-bloomer. He had a lot of interest in Tom Clancy and military history and computers in high school, but he didn’t really gel as a student until well into his college career (in school he was the sort of kid who’d do his homework and then forget to turn it in). Also, his term papers on military history weren’t much appreciated by his high school English teacher. My brother went into college as a Marine Reservist and did two tours in Iraq before getting his degree. After graduation, he’s made the jump to being a Marine officer (which is much more competitive than becoming an officer in other branches of the service) and pretty soon he’ll be starting pilot’s training. You might say, well he went to college, didn’t he, so he would have been fine no matter what, but I’m not sure that that’s true. A lot of people start college and then wash out or go to college and just seem to drift without making progress.

  7. Um… I don’t suppose they meant the University of SYDNEY… at least “Australian” is spelt correctly.

  8. Stacy in NJ says:

    Mrs. C,

    That should be “spelled”. This is an American site. 🙂

  9. I noticed this with Mormons I knew. That church sends kids off at 18 for a 2 year missionary stint before college. The experience resulted in them being much more mature and motivated than the typical college freshman.

    My kids have fall birthdays but we decided not to “red shirt” them for kindergarten. They will most likely do a “gap year” of some sort to help them mature before starting college.

  10. SuperSub and Amy P, you’re arguing from anecdote. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t give a complete picture. I could counter your stories with one of my own. A classmate enlisted, but failed boot camp. I think he attacked a superior. Was he suited for college? Probably not. Enlisting in the army didn’t render him mature and well-behaved, though.

    Enlisting in the army is a very honorable choice. A four year hitch in the armed forces is nothing like spending a year studying art history in Italy, or working on a sheep farm in New Zealand. The casualty rate is not as high as WWII, but thousands have died or been injured.

    “According to the Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, about 1,800 U.S. troops are already suffering from traumatic brain injuries caused by penetrating wounds. But neurologists worry that many more – at least 30 percent of the troops who have been engaged in active combat for four months or longer in Iraq and Afghanistan – are at risk of potentially disabling neurological disorders from the blast waves of IEDs.”

  11. Cranberry,

    I think you’ve got to compare the military (or any other highly structured experience) to the free-for-all of freshman life. The lack of structure at college is a big problem for the immature. Away from home, you choose when you get up, what (if anything) you eat, whether to go to class, whether to go to work, how much to study, when to start major projects, how much time to spend on extracurriculars and social life, what legal or illegal substances to experiment with, how late to go to bed at night, etc. I think it’s a bit of a miracle that anybody manages to get a college degree (or for that matter go to class), given all of the temptations involved, and indeed college graduation rates are nothing to write home about. I’ve read discussions (maybe at Megan McArdle’s?) where I’ve seen the argument that a college diploma is mainly a form of signaling. Rather than providing value-added, it often merely communicates that you were smart enough to get in, and organized enough that you managed to get to class, get to tests, and so forth. That’s worth something, but not the $100,000 or so that people pay or borrow for it, and a lot of college students don’t make it successfully out of the sorting machine.

    Anyway, if you think about it, I’m sure you can think of several members of your own family who had disappointing college careers, at least early on. The record-holder in my family is a young woman with late-diagnosed ADHD who spent something like 7 years at her parents’ expense hopping between various undergraduate programs before her parents gave up. She had other problems, too, but in her particular case, I am 100% sure she would have done been better in a more structured environment like the workplace or the military. The total freedom of college is something that a lot of kids aren’t prepared to deal with. Speaking personally, I was fine as a student, but the term that I lived in an apartment and had to cook for myself was a disaster. I lived off rice, bouillon, yogurt, apples, and that was basically it. I would forget to eat enough and it affected my academic performance that term. (As an aside, this is one of the reasons I believe in mandatory dormitory residence and meal plan, at least for younger students.) The funny thing was that in high school, I’d had to cook for my whole family. I just found it demoralizing to be living in an apartment and needing to take care of just me.

  12. “She had other problems, too, but in her particular case, I am 100% sure she would have done been better in a more structured environment like the workplace or the military.”

    The army is not the place to look for behavioral treatment of ADHD.

    “Under the old standards, any history of ADD or ADHD was disqualifying. While waivers were sometimes possible, they were among the hardest categories of waivers to get approved. Under the new standards, ADD/ADHD is disqualifying only if the applicant has been treated with ADD/ADHD medication within the previous year and/or they display signs of ADD/ADHD. For applicants with a previous history of ADD/ADHD who have been off medication for more than one year, and they do no demonstrate significant impulsivity or inattention during MEPS processing, the MEPS examining official may find them qualified for military service without submission of a waiver.”

    (Asthma or reactive airway disease after age 13 also require a waiver .)

    Enlisting in the Army is not the equivalent of enrolling at Harvard, but the requirements do mean that successful soldiers are not a random sample of high school graduates: Correlation is not causation. We think that certain experiences teach us to behave differently, but when those systems are set up to release or flunk out those who cannot conform to expectations, we overlook the attrition bias.

    Look, I’m fairly certain that those of us paying attention to Joanne Jacobs’ blog would agree that there are many college students who should never have enrolled. There may be a positive effect in giving confused young people a chance to leave schooling after high school, never to return. They get a job, they get pregnant, they don’t take the course they need to qualify to enroll in college. Things happen. The debt incurred to pursue a college degree is a millstone around their necks.

    However. Human fertility is of limited duration. Unfortunately, it coincides with college, grad school, and establishing oneself in a career. Kids who can start a program of studies should do so, if only to give them time to be an adult before starting a family. Planning to have one’s first child at 35 or so is a real gamble. Having one’s children near the end of normal fertility also means that a parent might have just finished paying off her own student debt, only to face a choice between educating the children, or retiring (ever).

  13. Cranberry,

    I don’t disagree with you about fertility or the perils of just hanging around waiting for enlightenment, but I don’t think a year or two will make or break you in that respect. My brother was married in college, his first kid was born within a week of his college graduation, he’s an officer now, and he and his wife are expecting a second child, without him being within hailing distance of 30 yet. Of course, it helps considerably that both brother and SIL are from college-educated families and it was simply expected that they would finish college (every single one of the nine cousins on that side of the family has at least a BA). Not that we didn’t have many anxious moments when he was in K-12.

    I kind of doubt that the military is that serious about ADD. It’s more a requirement, really, if you think about what is involved–being resilient, Tiggerish, energetic, able to deal with a rapidly changing environment, etc. We have another cousin that we now suspect was undiagnosed with ADD as a kid and he did Army ROTC and now has a very successful career in special forces doing computer stuff. The academic requirements of ROTC probably helped him a lot in keeping his eye on the ball in college than he would have otherwise. (To generalize from my military stories–maybe what a lot of students need is a stronger vocational thread in their college studies to keep them focused, so they understand clearly what they are doing in college, other than meeting girls and staying up really, really late.)

    But back to the military and anecdotes again, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Thomas Sowell the conservative economist, but he wrote a very interesting memoir about his early years:

    He was a Southern black kid who came up North in the old days, was clearly gifted academically (he went to Stuyvesant in NYC), but then started to fail in school, acted up at home, got kicked out, and was essentially homeless for a while. It looked like he was going no place good. Eventually, Sowell was drafted into the Marines during the Korean War (he was put in a photography unit!!!). It turned his life around and he actually did go on to Harvard. (A lot of people today would say that Sowell is also a bit of an Aspie–inspired by his own son, he wrote two books on bright, late-talking children. That looks like a red flag for autism to me, but Sowell started writing on this stuff in the early 90s when autism was much less well understood.)

    I know that this is all very anecdotal, but you see the same pattern over and over again, of kids who are bright but academically wobbly who need a bit more structure in their lives and an opportunity to mature. Of course, the other side of it is that in the military, single guys wind up with more disposable income than they know what to do with, so there is a temptation to fritter that away on stupid stuff and to wind up with wives who used to work in the “entertainment industry”.

    It’s the end of the tourist season where my family lives, and I’ve had a chance to talk at length with my relatives about their experiences with employees over the summer. The employees tend to come in two flavors: kids and hard-luck case middle-aged single moms with cigarette voices, but the issues with both are essentially the same. They nearly all have trouble showing up when they say they’re going to, not changing a work schedule around multiple times, following directions and not texting on the job (although that’s mostly the kids). (It’s seasonal work, and not phenomenally well-paid.) As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is just showing up. You’re in big trouble if you miss out on that 80% when you don’t have everything else going for you.

  14. I fail to see how a “gap year” makes a significant difference in fertility. Now if you’re talking about spending a long time in graduate school and post-grad training, THAT is the real issue.

    It was a big factor in my deciding not to apply to medical school. I knew I wanted to have several children and to cut back or shelve my paid career while they are young. It just didn’t make sense to spend all that time and money on medical school in that case.

    My DH’s cousin was interested in primary care pediatrics and decided to become a nurse practitioner instead of a M.D. pediatrician. She won’t make quite as much but it’s only a 2 year program with no residency requirement after graduation. I think she made a smart decision.

  15. “I fail to see how a “gap year” makes a significant difference in fertility.”

    It can be cumulative, though. There’s redshirting for kindergarten. Children (especially boys) who change from public to private schools often repeat the year, in this region. If any of my children were seriously ill during the school year (heavens forbid), I would push for that child to stay back, rather than continue on with the grade, in the naive belief that what happens in the classroom matters. I am perhaps hyper-aware of biological clocks because my mother went into menopause in her 30s.

    Amy P, I still don’t think that military life can turn a low-achiever into a go-getter. However, there is something very significant about serving in the armed forces: they administer an intelligence test to new recruits. The oft-cited high school troublemaker might have been making trouble because he was bored out of his gourd. Provided with training and duties which interest and challenge him, he’s much happier, and more likely to show up on time.