Malia's gap year and why more students delay college

Story highlights

  • Nina Hoe: Malia Obama's gap year is the canary in the college-delay coal mine
  • More American students are taking time off before freshman year, she says
  • Some delay for personal growth, others for financial reasons

Nina Hoe, Ph.D., is a study director at the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University. She has studied the effects of delaying college for different reasons, including taking a gap year, and focuses on public opinion, social impact, community engagement, education, and public health. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Nina Hoe

(CNN)A few days ago, Malia Obama's unsurprising decision to attend Harvard was significantly overshadowed by her far more unconventional decision to take a gap year. At the tender age of 17, Malia has already interned with Lena Dunham and regularly tops fashion charts. Now she's carrying another torch for her generation, validating the increasingly common practice of taking a yearlong pause before jumping into college.

For the uninitiated (or those who haven't yet read any of the extensive coverage of Malia's decision), a gap year is an intentional delay of college for the purpose of personal growth and learning, including travel, work and/or service. Although gaining popularity in the United States, taking a gap year is commonplace in Europe and Australia. Harvard was an early adopter and proponent of the gap year, including this recommendation on its admissions page: "Harvard College encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way."
    Harvard (along with schools like Princeton, UNC-Chapel Hill, Florida State, and many others) is onto something. Students who have taken gap years, as well as the college faculty and staff who work with them, say that those who have delayed show up to college with clearer focus about their goals and academic pursuits. Research has also shown that those who took a gap year have, on average, shorter times to graduation than others and are more likely to succeed personally in college in ways such as taking on leadership positions.
    One could look at Malia Obama's decision as simply a reflection of her desire not to enter college when her dad is still the sitting president — or as taking the suggestion of her chosen college. But she's already shown herself to be a trend-setter for her generation, and to my mind, her decision to take a gap year is an indicator of a major shift in mindset for Americans with respect to education and the idea of the "right path."
    Many American students are choosing to delay college in order to participate in activities to better prepare themselves for college -- whether it be personally, by making an intentional choice to expand their horizons, or financially, by heeding the necessity to work to earn money to help pay tuition costs.
    Given the current state of college education in the United States -- plagued by increases in tuition that outpace inflation, rising incidents of student loan debt, as well as a significant decline in graduation rates -- high school graduates may be wise to think twice before jumping straight into college. From an economic standpoint, students taking time after high school is a much better use of our collective educational resources than standing by as students rack up debt and in many cases fail to graduate. Taking a year to work to save money for college or to gain experiences that prepare them to be focused and make smarter decisions when they get there is a smart move, so it's not surprising that more students are starting to delay starting college.
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    While a gap year is a specific type of college delay, the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, reports that of all undergraduate students in 2012, 34% took some amount of time off after high school and chose to delay starting college, most frequently to work and often to travel or attend to health issues. Unfortunately, the last time NCES surveyed students about what their reasons for delaying college were was in a 2004-2009 longitudinal study. Questions about reasons for delaying college, however, were not included in their more recent studies conducted in 2012-2014.
    It's especially disappointing that this research has not been repeated or extended, because the data that is available shows that delayers perform better in college. My analysis of NCES data shows that when all other background factors are equal (like socioeconomic status, gender, race and high school educational performance), college students who delayed after high school had significantly higher GPAs that those who didn't.
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    The benefits of delaying overall and of taking a gap year in particular are reinforced by findings from a survey I conducted of more than 700 people in the United States who delayed to take a gap year, many of whom reported doing so to experience personal growth and career enrichment outside the academic track.
    After a rigorous high school experience and eight years of life in the spotlight at the White House, I suspect these are likely driving factors for Malia in taking a year off.
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    One "gapper" in the survey reflected, "The people I know who took gap years were more focused in college. They had a more nuanced view of the world. They were more successful (by traditional and nontraditional measures) in college." Other gappers in my survey also reported delaying because they could not afford college, or wanted to make more money before attending college. One student who took a gap year to work "to find a way to pay for my education without having to take out a loan," reflected back on his experience to say, "Although at the time I was not satisfied with (the work) I was doing, because I wanted to be in college I was able to realize that I had so much more to see in order to really focus on my education and not take it for granted when it was time for me to return."
    There is a serious need for more comprehensive research on the effects of delaying and taking a gap year for students from all backgrounds over the long term. And there's still a lot that we don't know about the range of activities gappers participate in and the impacts of those activities on their college performance and long-term achievement. But, as more students elect to delay that freshman year, the NCES as well as colleges and universities themselves will surely catch on to the importance of tracking the outcomes of this growing trend. Malia Obama may be one of the brightest and most famous, but she is not the only canary in the gap year coal mine.