Academic Literature

Gap Years – Delaying college enrollment affects earnings trajectories

In the literature on college enrollment and college choice, a common assumption is that college-intending students begin postsecondary education in the fall after their high school graduation. Yet according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 37 percent of undergraduate students in the 1992–93 academic year waited a year or more after high school graduation to attend college (Riccobono et al., 2001), as did a similar proportion of the 2011–12 cohort (Wine, Bryan, & Siegel, 2013). Despite the prevalence of delayed college enrollment, researchers have paid relatively little attention to this phenomenon or its consequences.
In recent years, educational counselors and universities have increasingly promoted the “gap year” model (Hoe, 2015). All eight Ivy League universities have encouraged admitted students to take a year after high school to travel, work, or engage in other productive activities that may help prepare them academically and developmentally for college. Some schools, including Princeton University, Tufts University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the New School, and Elon University, even provide financial aid for students who take a gap year.
For students who have fewer resources or are not planning to attend selective institutions, however, a gap between high school graduation and college enrollment may mean something different. For the average student, given the rising cost of attending college, financial concerns heavily influence college enrollment behaviors. According to the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, half of students who delayed college enrollment named financial concerns (20 percent) or preference to work (30 percent) as reasons for doing so. Only 15 percent indicated that they took a gap year to pursue personal interests or take a break. Working instead of enrolling in college allows individuals to save for college, defer paying college tuition, and enjoy short-term consumption benefits (Kane, 1996). Some also believe that accumulating work experience before college may increase students’ competitiveness in the labor market after college (Dellas & Sakellaris, 2003), though the extent to which precollege experience matters for post-college employment remains unclear. Other life circumstances and events, such as military service, sickness, marriage, pregnancy, or a death in the family, may also cause students to defer college enrollment (Bozick & DeLuca, 2005).

Regardless of students’ reasons for delaying college enrollment, a review of the literature suggests that doing so may lower their likelihood of completing college, thus implicitly depressing the supply of skilled labor. Yet few studies have rigorously compared the earnings outcomes and trajectories of students who do not enroll in college immediately after high school (whom we refer to in this paper as delayers) and those who do (whom we refer to as on-time enrollees).

Few studies have looked at the effects of this choice on their educational attainment and success in the labor market. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, this paper compares the academic and labor market outcomes of high school graduates who delay college enrollment (“delayers”) and those who enroll in college immediately (“on-time enrollees”) up to 13 years after high school completion.

The results show that delaying college enrollment decreases individuals’ likelihood of enrolling in college and increases their tendency to enroll in two-year colleges if they do return to school. Delayers experience early earnings benefits, but these fade out after their mid-20s and turn to significant losses over time. Differences in student characteristics only explain one third of the pay gap between delayers and on-time enrollees; 60 percent of the pay gap is explained by delayers’ reduced likelihood of attending and obtaining a degree at a four-year college.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Timing Matters: How Delaying College Enrollment Affects Earnings Trajectories


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