Gap Years for Everyone?

Malia Obama’s college plan will probably work out great for her, but taking time off before college isn’t exactly foolproof.

Malia Obama
Malia Obama, pictured on Andrews Air Force Base on April 7, will likely make good use of her gap year before attending Harvard in fall 2017.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The country’s most visible college-bound senior, Malia Obama, made headlines this weekend when she announced that not only is she going Harvard, but she’ll be starting her studies there in the fall of 2017, after a gap year. It’s a move that Harvard encourages: Between 80 and 110 of the 1,500-plus freshmen who enroll each year do so, the Harvard website notes.

While gap years have traditionally been more common in Europe, Israel, and Australia than in the United States, the concept has been gaining traction in recent years. It’s not just Harvard that endorses the practice; all of the Ivy League universities do so, a previous article that appeared in Slate by Joe O’Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, notes. It’s a stance that makes sense; numerous studies and other sources have shown that U.S. students benefit from taking a year off after graduating high school and before starting college. A gap year can provide a respite from academic pressures, provide real-world perspective, and help students clarify their goals so that when they do arrive on campus, they’re more focused and better positioned for success. It also helps them enter college as slightly more mature adults—for example, students who take a gap year seem to drink less when they get to college.

In a 2015 report, the American Gap Association found that so-called gappers overwhelmingly would recommend the experience, with 98 percent agreeing that having a gap year “helped me develop as a person.”

So should everyone take a gap year? It’s certainly tempting to think so. But while the AGA notes that its gap-year report is the most comprehensive one to date, the demographics of the students providing the information point to obvious differences between gappers and nongappers. The vast majority of students who completed the AGA survey had parents who were college educated—higher, certainly, than the average college-bound teen (while this is not a perfect comparison, only a third of adults nationwide have completed their degrees). Perhaps even more significantly, the majority of respondents to the 2015 survey came from families with estimated household incomes of more than $100,000 a year, compared with 2014’s median family income of $66,632 (the College Board reports that the median income for families with children of traditional college age is $84,524). 

While the surveys and observational studies suggest gap years make a student more prepared for college, it’s important to note that taking such a break is simply more common among students who in many ways are already positioned for success. Students who have all the qualifications that would predispose them to excel in college then self-select again, possibly giving themselves another leg up (even this self-selection might be another indication of higher maturity, and therefore increased likelihood of success). It’s not surprising that these kids end up doing very well in college, but it is difficult to assess just how much of it is thanks to the gap year.

Students who take gap years are more likely to have parents who can foot the bill for both the year and the college education that follows. For one thing, unlike college enrollment, federal financial aid for college can’t be deferred; the U.S. Department of Education notes that students taking a gap year would apply for the year they actually plan to enroll, which might make it harder for students on aid to plan a gap year. And while it may be well-accepted within the Ivy League, gap-year support is still far from universal: The California State University system, for instance, doesn’t have a deferral policy and requires students to reapply if they postpone enrollment for a gap year.

Of course, there are many students who defer going to college without labeling the experience as a gap year—a low-income student who spends a year working to save up money would probably just call the experience “life.” And this may or may not pay off in the long run: A sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University found that students who delayed college enrollment by more than one year were 64 percent less likely to complete their bachelor’s degree, even after eight years, than those who went directly. “Delayers tended to be from less- advantaged backgrounds, were generally low-performing in school, had kids or had gotten married before college, and started at a two-year college first,” the 2005 release on the study notes. Meanwhile, the authors of an article published last year in Developmental Psychology didn’t find many benefits to taking a gap year; instead, in a statement, one of the co-authors said their takeaway finding was that a gap year was “not harmful.”

That’s not to say a gap year is bad—it’s just, unsurprisingly, not a silver bullet to success. If you do take one, experts agree that having a plan both for the time off and for enrolling in college when the gap year ends is key for success. And while the details of Malia’s gap year aren’t yet public, it’s safe to say that it will be time well spent—and that she’ll show up at Harvard as planned a year from this fall.