Think of a high school graduate who is postponing college for a year, and what images come to mind?
Perhaps they involve a white female student from the Maryland suburbs traveling the world in search of a greater purpose. That would be a logical default, since it’s the portrayal that has tended to dominate mainstream media – read: The New York Times  – in recent years. It’s also the narrative that inspired one professor to figure out why the reality is so much different from the stereotype.
There are indeed students fortunate and resourceful enough to follow the path of the young woman referenced above, who gained exceptional work and life experience, returned to the United States with newfound direction, and graduated from Tufts University. But she had something that many others who take “gap years” lack: money.
A new study  to be published in the upcoming issue of The Review of Higher Education  examines more closely the root of the reality of who delays going to college, and why. Not only are high school graduates of lower socioeconomic status more likely to delay college, but they also experience longer gaps and are less likely to graduate once they do enroll.
“The popular press frequently writes about students who take a gap year and the many programs arising to serve them,” writes the study's author, Sara Goldrick-Rab. “It is troubling that so many of those articles neglect the significant socioeconomic differences in who experiences the gap year and in what ways. It is quite possible that socioeconomically advantaged students are accruing additional advantages during their time off, while socioeconomically challenged students are experiencing a delay for less positive reasons.”
The less advantaged students are often deterred by inadequate high school educations, children or marriage, and those who do eventually enter college are less likely than their more well-off peers to graduate, the study found.
To reach those conclusions, Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988 , which tracked the “educational and social trajectories” of students from 8th grade through their mid-20s. While those data did not indicate precise reasons why students who took gap years chose to do so, or what they did during that time, the survey responses did include information about race, gender, income, high school and college transcripts, children and relationship status.
“The rhetoric around delay of college is a bit idealized, and the major socioeconomic inequalities that we’re seeing all over the country ... very much apply as well to the timing of college entry,” Goldrick-Rab said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “When students are a little older when they enter college, certainly the colleges shouldn’t assume that the kids who are entering late did so because they’re in Europe.”
In fact, as noted in the study, “gappers” are about six times more likely to come from families in the bottom 20 percent of socioeconomic distribution (as compared to the top 20 percent, the contrast used in all the study’s conclusions); whereas 31 percent of students in the bottom quintile delayed college, only 5 percent of those in the top quintile did so. And while the lowest-income students took an average of 13 months off, the highest-income gappers took only 4.5 months off, on average.
What’s more, studies show that more time off also increases time-to-degree -- and lessens the likelihood of college completion. (One study mentioned in the report found that students who delayed enrollment for a year were 64 percent less likely to complete a bachelor's degree.)
So what’s responsible for these socioeconomic gaps? The study, which was co-written by a Wisconsin graduate student, Seong Won Han, cited a few major factors. (In the student study sample that produced the results below, 16 percent of respondents reported taking a gap period before college.)
- “Students in the upper brackets of the distribution are far less likely to delay college compared to students in the bottom brackets of the distribution,” the report says. Students who delay are more likely to be male, Hispanic, and part of a lower-income family that may not expect them to eventually earn bachelor’s degrees. They also have lower standardized test scores and high school grade-point averages, and are more likely to attend a public high school. And when all these factors are controlled, the gaps in tendency to delay actually shrink significantly. “Among students from the same racial and gender groups, with similar educational expectations, rates of family formation, K-12 education and course-taking, the differences in delay between low- and high-[socioeconomic status] students are on the order of two times -- rather than six times -- greater,” the study says.
- Lower-income students are less likely to take the upper-level high school math and science courses that are benchmarks for a smooth transition to college. According to the study, the most significant factors for delay were not completing Algebra II and/or one lab science course in biology, chemistry or physics. Only 42 percent of the students who delayed college took Algebra II (35 fewer percentage points than those who didn’t delay) and 37 percent took a lab science course (compared to 75 percent of non-delayers). It also found that even when students from any given socioeconomic status took more rigorous math and science courses, those of lower status were still more likely to delay.
- The other major factor for delay among all students is family formation. Marrying before college increases the likelihood that a student will delay enrollment. Having a child before college made students of high socioeconomic status -- the 1 percent who had a child -- 20 times more likely to delay college, while it increased the odds of delay only two times over for students of low status. Yet, the wealthier students are more likely to succeed once they do enroll.
- The study also measured the impact of parental expectations, and found that they have opposite effects on the top and bottom 20 percent. Students of low socioeconomic status whose parents expect them to earn bachelor’s degrees are 33 percent more likely to delay college, while that expectation makes students of high status 56 percent less likely to delay.