Filling in the gaps

Before colleges begin to fund gap years, more information is needed on their effectiveness

Tufts University recently launched a new program to fund students who want to take a gap year before starting their first year of college. The goal is to make the gap year experience more accessible to middle- to low-income students.

Tufts is not the first university to establish such a program. Princeton and the University of North Carolina already offer similar options. Gap years usually involve travel, though they don’t necessarily have to. They are more common in European countries, but since 2006, the number of students taking gap years in the United States has risen by about 20 percent.

Many experts claim that a gap year can give a student a stronger foundation for success, by giving him the opportunity to take a break from the competitive nature of high school and learn more about the world from a different perspective. However, the empirical data on the effects of gap years is conflicting. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics conducted a study in 2005 that found students who did not enroll in college right after graduating from high school were less likely to earn a postsecondary education degree. But the American Gap Association points out that this study was not specific enough. Karl Haigler, a gap year researcher, studied a smaller group of students who explicitly planned to go to college after completing other goals for a one year period, and found that most of these students did return to school.

For those students who delayed college and did not attend at all, we should not necessarily discredit those decisions. College is not for everyone — taking a year off may be an opportunity to realize that you don’t in fact belong in the classroom. But if this is the case, such discoveries should not be financed by the colleges themselves, as the funding would be better appropriated to students who already feel comfortable in academia and need financial help in order to get there.

The American Gap Association claims a gap year does equip a student with academic advantages during secondary education, citing a study that found students who took gap years had better GPAs in college than students of similar pre-college academic standing who did not take gap years. However, this does not necessarily mean that the gap year experience is the cause of a higher GPA. It could be that the students who are more inclined to take the gap year will do so because they already possess qualities — ambition, family support, organizational skills — which may also be useful in earning high GPA in college. Also, GPA is not the only measure of success in higher education.

This is not to say that taking a gap year is poor decision. It can be a valuable experience for a student who may want a break from an academic schedule or may still be unsure of what area of study she wants to focus on in college. But programs like Tufts’ likely will not become a trend until more data about the effects of gap years is available, especially while public funding for higher education is decreasing.

More research is needed on the long-term effects of gap years on academic and professional careers before colleges start diverting funds to such programs. Arguments in support of gap years are largely subjective and very personalized. For some individuals they may be the right choice, but that doesn’t mean they will work for everyone. Gap years are undoubtedly valuable life experiences and great opportunities for a different kind of education, but for now, there is no reason to think that students cannot excel without them.

Published March 17, 2014 in Opinion

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