In an article on the university’s website, William Fitzsimmons and Marlyn E. McGrath of Harvard’s admissions department, and Charles Ducey, a lecturer in psychology, assert that a gap year could be an answer to the burnout faced by ultra-ambitious students as they compete to gain entrance into the “right” college followed by the “right” graduate schools, and the “right” sequence of jobs, in order to live in the “right” kinds of communities.
In the 1995-96 school year, among those who enrolled in postsecondary education, a third had waited a year or more after graduating from high school to attend. Jonathan Guzman wrote recently about his own gap-year experience in The Atlantic, noting how he’s seen acceptance of the gap year proliferate at American universities. He notes that roughly three-quarters of each incoming class at Harvard University’s law school applied after taking at least a year off; Northwestern University medical school hopefuls favored a gap year; even schools like Princeton and Tufts have started their own programs for students to take a “transformational year of full-time service, domestically or abroad, before beginning their academic studies.”
In the U.S., taking time off for travel, experience, or simply rest, was long considered an indulgence, where in the U.K. for example, it has been slightly more of an expectation. These two education systems are not completely comparable—a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. typically takes four years to achieve, where it only takes three in the U.K., possibly lending to a more natural gap year—but anecdotally, they may represent the value that different kinds of universities are putting on experiential learning. The increasing popularity of gap years in the U.S. could signal increased efforts to combat the workaholic culture that has proliferated at elite American higher-education institutions.
The increasing willingness of high-performing students to take time off stands in contrast with the recent push to get "at risk" high-school students straight into college after graduation—a pressure borne out of the fear that the longer these students, who typically come from underserved backgrounds, wait, the less likely they are to enroll in college as time passes. While Malia Obama’s decision to take a gap year appears to be a personal choice and there is no reason to think she won’t earn a degree, other students put off college for financial and other reasons that can lessen the likelihood that they enroll at all. During his presidency, Obama has made considerable efforts to increase the chances that students from low-income communities and communities of color can access affordable postsecondary educations.
Students who choose to delay are at considerable risk of not completing a postsecondary credential when compared with their peers who enroll immediately after high school graduation, says a National Center for Education Statistics study. The study’s authors acknowledge that students that delay entry are not homogeneous (they could be taking a single gap year or going to school more than a decade later to pursue mid-life career changes), but they do note delayed entrants who are racial minorities, come from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds, and have parents who are not college-educated, are at a sizable disadvantage compared to peers who enter college right away. “The likelihood of being enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program declined with each successive delay group from 30 percent among those who delayed a year to 8 percent of those who delayed 10 or more years,” the study reads. “Aspirations for advanced degrees, however, declined with the length of time between high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.”