Expert Commentary

Delayed enrollment and college plans: Is there a postponement penalty?

2013 study in The Journal of Higher Education on how taking time off before entering post-secondary education hurts some students and helps others.

Students are increasingly choosing to delay college enrollment in a post-secondary institution, and even students who strongly expect and ultimately do enroll in college are choosing to delay. The idea of a “gap year” — a concept traditionally more common in Europe — has become popular in the United States. Prior research has shown that there is little effect for high-achieving students from affluent backgrounds in terms of college completion — and there’s some evidence they may benefit from time off. But that pattern does not hold for all students, and scholars have noted a “class gap in the gap year.” Evidence suggests that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those with lower secondary-level academic achievement and those who seek to attend community colleges often do not benefit from certain kinds of delays, as they are ultimately less likely to earn a higher degree.

A 2013 article published in The Journal of Higher Education, “Delayed Enrollment and College Plans: Is There a Postponement Penalty?” sought to better understand the varying durations of post-secondary delays and their effects on degree attainment. The researchers, based at the College Board and Princeton University, analyzed a data set from a longitudinal survey of a high school senior cohort from Texas; the students graduated in 2002.

The study’s findings include:

  • Enrollment delay decreases the likelihood of enrolling at a baccalaureate-granting institution: “Delays of one year or longer are associated with significantly lower odds of attending a four-year postsecondary institution….” Approximately 65% of students who enrolled on time were enrolled at a bachelor’s degree-granting institution four years after high school graduation (by 2006), compared with only 23% of all students who delayed their college plans.
  • “Compared with on-time enrollees, students who postponed college enrollment were less likely to expect a bachelor’s or higher degree and much less likely to attend a postsecondary institution four years post-high school graduation.”
  • Interestingly, students with the longest delays — three or four years — “do not incur the most severe enrollment penalties.” The researchers speculate that this is because of “unobservable characteristics, such as motivation, determination, and maturation” among these students who eventually enroll at older ages.
  • Only about one-third of students who delayed enrollment by one semester or one year were enrolled in a four-year institution within four years of high school graduation. Among the students who delayed for two years or more, only 10% were enrolled in a four-year institution by 2006. The authors conclude that one year is a key postponement threshold for delay before going for a bachelor’s degree, and longer delays make it less likely for students to pursue baccalaureate degree ambitions.
  • Approximately two-thirds of students who enrolled on time entered at a four-year institution, compared with only 20% of students who delayed enrollment. Approximately half of the students who postponed college began their careers at a community college and 30% enrolled in a vocational institution; this is compared with 35% and 5%, respectively, of on-time enrollees.
  • Males were more likely to postpone than females, and Hispanics were more likely to delay enrollment than white and Asian students. On-time enrollees were more likely to graduate from an affluent school, rank in the top 20 percent of their high school, complete at least one advanced placement course, and have friends enrolling in college.

Overall, the evidence suggests that there are two key classes of students who delay: those who delay a long time and benefit from increased focus on job-related skills, and those who delay a shorter period and ultimately suffer by not enrolling: “Over 60 percent of Texas students who delayed their postsecondary training three or four years enrolled in a vocational/technical institution, which suggests that the school hiatus may have provided them with the labor market feedback about alternative ways to improve their wage prospects short of pursuing a four-year college degree. The policy challenge, then, is to identify talented students for whom delay thwarts postsecondary plans despite their high educational expectations and results in non-enrollment from students for whom delay provides labor market feedback relevant to a vocational/technical postsecondary career.”

Tags: higher education

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