The Malia Impact: Counselors Consider Growing Interest in Gap Years

Data are sparse but positive about impact of taking a year off before college.

September 25, 2017
 
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BOSTON -- Call it the Malia Impact. When President Obama’s oldest daughter announced that she would be taking a gap year before attending Harvard University, where she enrolled this month, interest in the idea of taking a year off before starting classes spiked, according to Google search trends.

At the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference here, high school and college counselors and advisers alike gathered to discuss how to best handle students’ interest in taking gap years -- which has been growing for years.

“For my entire high school career, I had been led to believe that college was the next step. I didn't have the courage to do something different. I followed the herd going to college -- I didn’t have a personal reason to go to college,” said Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association.

Knight’s group, soon to be renamed the Gap Year Association of America, works to frame the idea in a positive, organized way for students, parents and college and high school administrators. Its list of colleges that accept deferrals for admitted high school seniors who choose to take a gap year sits at 150, though that number is poised to grow to 350 when the list is officially updated for next year.

Knight spoke of the positive effects gap years can have -- providing a decompression period for students academically while letting them explore work, internship, research or travel opportunities that they’re genuinely interested in.

Bob Clagett, co-director of college advising at Colorado Academy, pointed to data. While limited, they show positive academic trends for students who take gap years -- even when controlling for the factors such as the above-average affluence and college prep that students who take gap years tend to have.

While working at Middlebury College, Clagett wanted to collect data on the trend that had always seemed to exist, in his opinion, but hadn’t been studied -- that students who took gap years tended to do better academically than those who didn’t.

“One of the concerns a lot of people have -- particularly parents -- their sons and daughters may lose their hard-earned study skills … and actually struggle more once they get to college,” Clagett said. “I was intuitively feeling that wasn’t the case.”

It turns out, it was more than just intuition.

Clagett collected data from students at Middlebury who had taken a gap year. The data are relatively small -- typically between 15 and 20 students took a gap year in each of the four years he collected data. But he tracked those students’ grade point averages and compared them to others in their class, finding that the gap-year cohort almost always outperformed their peers, earning a GPA that was higher by 0.1-0.17 points, depending on the year.

There was an initial worry about the population he sampled, however.

“Gap-year students come from more affluent backgrounds, better schools,” on average, Clagett said. To control for that, he looked at how they were expected to perform based on the data they had submitted when accepted to Middlebury. They still outperformed what had been projected.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill replicated the study and found GPA differences of up to 0.43 points favoring gap-year over non-gap-year students, again finding improvements when controlling for factors such as affluence and high school preparation.

Of course, there is no one way to do a gap year. Some students enroll in programs that send them to far-off global destinations. Others embark on individual, unstructured programs on their own making, domestically. But for high school counselors advising students, and admissions officers receiving them, panelists offered some general advice.

  • Sometimes a gap year should be taken after a student is already accepted to college and then defers their offer. Other times, the gap year can be a time to improve a student’s credentials to be admitted.
  • Some colleges, such as Florida State University and UNC Chapel Hill, offer funding and fellowships for accepted students who chose to defer. Other universities, as Princeton and Tufts, themselves offer programming for students taking a gap year.
  • Some structure is good, especially for anything done during what would have otherwise been the fall semester, panelists said. Gap years can be broken up to offer students multiple experiences: travel, work, research, internships and doing a structured program first can make a more individual approach during the spring semester more effective.
  • Additionally, for high school counselors, panelists advised bringing in alumni who have done gap years and talking to students well in advance.

“Junior year is not too early,” said Jane Sarouhan, vice president for the Center for Interim Programs. The gap-year process is not an alternative to the college application process, she said. Rather, “it’s part of your portfolio of the college process.”

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