Malia Obama’s Gap Year and the Post-Traditional Student Trend

Malia Obama made headlines this week when she announced her plans to take a year off before attending Harvard University. The phenomenon known as the “gap year” is growing in popularity. The American Gap Association estimates that some 30,000 to 40,000 students elect to defer for a year; in 2015, participation in gap-year programs increased about 22 percent from the previous year.

Higher education is already seeing a surge in post-traditional learners, namely those students who go to (or back to) school later on, often bearing work and family responsibilities in addition to their studies. When people think about college students, they often think of a traditional undergraduate student on campus, but post-traditional students make up the majority of higher-education enrollments. While gap-year students don’t quite fall into that same category, they do obtain some post-traditional student characteristics when they elect to take time off between high school and college.

What does this mean for students, and what does it mean for colleges and universities?

A case can be made that a gap year gives students the opportunity to figure out who they are and what they want to do—as long as it is “transformative” in nature, Chronicle reporter and renowned higher-ed expert Jeff Selingo says. Gap-year students tend to come to college more prepared to follow a chosen path, rather than wasting credit hours and changing majors as they consider their trajectory.

According to an AP source, students who took a gap year typically say they entered college feeling more recharged and focused, while universities say those students often arrive on campus as better leaders—more civically engaged and motivated. In this case, a gap year could boost engagement and retention.

Numerous news reports tell us the concept of the gap year has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy. However, the same Chronicle article points out that more gap-year providers are trying to appeal to middle- and low-income students. For colleges and universities, this means they need to determine what kind of students can effectively transition from gap-year status to successful student. Institutions that strategically leverage data analytics to assess student dynamics, plans and potential may have an advantage when evaluating and supporting gap-year students.

At Helix, with more than 30 years of experience serving post-traditional learners, we’ve seen the shift in student demographics unfold first-hand and we continue to help institutions adapt in order to better serve those students. We now find ourselves wondering if this gap year trend will continue and the potential for how it might impact the future of higher ed similarly to post-traditional learners. Only time will tell.

Murphy Monroe

Murphy is the Vice President of Operations and General Manager of Enterprise Services at Helix Education. Prior to joining Helix, Murphy served as Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management for Columbia College Chicago, where he implemented marketing and enrollment operations strategies that moved the college from regional to national status and dramatically improved the academic preparedness of incoming students.