Bryan Caplan  

A Single Person With Doubts About the "Gap Year"

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Arnold writes:

I carry around an entrepreneurial idea of an American equivalent of the "gap year," which would be a year of education in between high school and college. This year would involve finding a part-time job, living in and cleaning an apartment, learning to cook one's own meals (and pick out fresh ingredients to go into that cooking), learning personal finance, learning something about household wiring and plumbing, and taking courses in philosophy and mathematics. I have not found a single person who doubts that this would be better for young people than the typical college freshman experience.

Maybe Arnold's "gap year" would be better for the young person's soul. But would it actually be a prudent unilateral course of action? I very much doubt it. After your gap year, you'd still have to do a regular four-year degree to signal that you've got the Right Stuff. Unless the world changes a lot, employers are going to treat the gap year like a gap in your resume, nothing more. And are household management skills so difficult that people can't learn them by doing once they get their first real job and their own apartment?

When I talk to most labor economists, we agree that education pays, but argue about whether it teaches socially valuable skills. When I talk to Arnold, though, it seems like we agree that it fails to teach socially valuable skills, but argue about whether it pays. Am I understanding you correctly, Arnold?


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
meep writes:

Well, considering a lot of students are taking more than 4 years to get a degree because they're farting around, I doubt the gap year would have too much impact on them. And if one hasn't wasted one's time, you could possibly shave off a year from a 4-year program (as I know many people who have, without benefit of a gap year.)

Robb writes:

Hmm...So Byran, now the question is did Arnold ever discuss this with ;you. If not, that is curious. If so, than it is an interesting example with the problem of anecdotal evidence. Even professors suppress contradictory evidence!

smilerz writes:

I find it plausible that it would do a tremendous amount of good for the students. One's worldview changes tremendously once you have to pay bills and see how much the government takes out in taxes.

Learning those lessons before going to college would change a young person's world-view tremendously.

Whether it pays off in post-college success is doubtful.

Kevin Nowell writes:

I wish I had taken a year off before starting college.

quadrupole writes:

This actually plays into my theory that *one* of the functions of college is to successfully transition people to functional adulthood.

Most college students start out in a dorm. In a dorm you have much less supervision than many had at home, but you still have a guaranteed roof and three square meals a day.

At some point, most college students transition to a shared apartment off campus. At this point they have to learn a lot of household management skills, but typically they still have parental backstopping.

By the time you graduate college, you tend to be equipped to move out and handle housing and feeding yourself in a non-backstopped manner.

Ben Casnocha writes:

One argument is that the added perspective you presumably pick up helps you better digest and remember what you learn in college. Thanks to traveling to Japan during my gap year, I expect I'll be much more motivated in my foreign language study (Japanese).

*Gap years are educationally-harmful - kids should go to college ASAP*

I'm very skeptical of the supposed specifically-educational benefits of *not* engaging in formal education (ie. a gap year).

As a general rule, for most students, I am pretty sure it yields better educational outcomes to go straight from school to college.

My reason is that psychological neoteny (delayed maturation) is very probably beneficial for the educational process - education is a mainly absorptive process, and it benefits from youthful flexibility of mind and memory skills.

Indeed, the addition of an extra chronological year before college might well (on average) be somewhat harmful to educational outcomes - as well as the damage from growing-up faster. Modern life is all about *not* growing-up, and retaining youthful flexibility for longer.

(I am talking here about specific damage to educational attainment, not about whether gap years improve people as a person - about which I am very unsure.)

Indeed, I think it would be better for smart kids to go to college a year or two *earlier* rather than later - for instance they might be able to attend a local college (while living at home) to study more advanced material than at high school, before transferring to a residential college when they reach the age of majority. This seems a viable response to the long-term decline in college educational standards which inevitably happens as the cohort particiaption in higher education continues to expand.

Bill writes:

Indeed, the addition of an extra chronological year before college might well (on average) be somewhat harmful to educational outcomes - as well as the damage from growing-up faster. Modern life is all about *not* growing-up, and retaining youthful flexibility for longer.

How on Earth is it damaging to grow up faster? We evolved to be "grown up" by 14. IMO, extended adolescence is harmful, and modern life is so messy because so many parents try to keep their adult children childish. It's no wonder the electorate is so ignorant. Your attitude helps me understand why so many parents are incompetent these days.

superdestroyer writes:

Once again, someone proposes a one size fits all solutions for something that will really only affect lazy rich white kids from the suburbs. I guess while future frat rat Mister Smith is learning life skills before he gets his worthless degree in American studies, young Misters Kim, Patel, Nguyen, and Zhao will be spending their freshmen years in calculcus, physics, and chemistry while getting their degrees in science and engineering. Why spend a year forgetting your math skills while learning how to do the laundry?

Of course, in a couple year as the those students who took a gap year enjoy their careers in sales, they can look at the higher incomes and higher achievements of the "model minority" students who avoided such non-sense.

Brandon P writes:

I have found that college kids love to rack up credit cards. A gap year teaching personal finance would be huge to the average college student. On the other hand I think a gap year living on one's own and being fully responsible for EVERYTHING would be a shock for that same average college student. This probably goes without being said, but parents play a huge role in a successful transition from high school into college.

David writes:

Honestly, my experience as a student has been I've gotten basically everything on the list to some extent except the household wiring and plumbing, although the latter was so vague I'm not entirely sure what is necessary.

Nonetheless, this stuff can easily divide into what should be learned before graduating high school and what should be learned before graduating college.

finding a part-time job - hs or college
living in and cleaning an apartment - college
learning to cook one's own meals (and pick out fresh ingredients to go into that cooking) - college
learning personal finance - high school
learning something about household wiring and plumbing - high school
and taking courses in philosophy and mathematics - hs and college

Taking a year off, given how these can be done, strikes me as not only a waste of time, but frankly as pathetic. For that matter, should one live in a city for six months before getting a job so they can be familiar with the area and traffic patterns?

B.H. writes:

For several generations of young men, the US Army provided, and paid for, the gap year. Actually, gap two years.

Yes, I like the voluntary army. But still we should understand the loss involved in the voluntary army. Universal conscription gave young people a chance to live, experience, even see the world, and grow up before heading for college. And under the GI Bill, the government could help pay for college, too.

By getting rid of social obligations, we prolong childhood.

David writes:

Addendum - you should learn essentially how to live in and clean an apartment BY THE TIME YOU'RE 12. What is involved in cleaning is what normal people call chores. Parents can teach these skills really at a very young age. Like when you vacuum a room, mop a kitchen floor, dust window sills, and clean the bathroom, you'll find that those components of an apartment are exactly the same as a house. If you're a parent and your kids don't learn how to vacuum or use 409 spray, you're a failure as a parent, and you're also wasting your own time and money.

Christina writes:

I also experienced a gap year between high school and college, and it was a vital, life-saving choice for me. The high school social scene had ground me down to a state in which I was suicidal. My grades had fallen into the toilet. Even my SAT score suffered by 300 points. I despaired at the thought of even getting into college considering the basketcase I had become. Then my dad said something amazing to me as we drove home from a visit to JMU: "You know, you don't have to go to college right away."

My dad then ran down the litany of people in our family and beyond who have perfectly wonderful careers, and didn't follow the traditional path straight from high school to college. I was relieved.

Of course, living and working during that year was an interesting experience, mostly because I was surprised how many people (many were parents of my friends) told me what a mistake I had made. "The longer you're gone, the harder it is to go back," was the line I heard over and over. So I gave into the pressure and enrolled at Mason. It was amazing how much more prepared I was for it than I had been a year before. I took my classes more seriously, I kept on working full-time, and I realized how much money I saved by NOT going to school a year prior.

Obviously there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. But I'm happy to see at least Arnold recognizes that 16 years of non-stop schooling isn't for everyone. For those of us who have no interest in greek life and/or dorm life what's the hurry?

Given that so many kids change their majors umpteen times, take semesters off, flunk a bunch of courses, and otherwise waste their parents' money during the (ever elongating) college years, I don't see why anyone should be remotely distainful of a gap year.

Nathan Smith writes:

I favor the idea of a "gap year" in a bit different way. Whether the "gap year" is a good idea educationally, I'm not sure. Probably a lot of people who now go to college wouldn't go to college if they had to get back into the swing of school after a year off, and that may be good or bad. Or, very likely, more young people would see what kinds of professional skills could best secure them a comfortable material life, and more of those who don't love the life of the mind for its own sake would opt for programs more geared towards specific professional applications rather than the general university curriculum. Those who chose to pursue a university education in the fuller sense of the term would be more selective, and more mature, and this might raise quality.

But what's on my mind is the question: Does an American-born person have a right to a college education, provided that they get the grades etc.? Is a college education, if you perform well enough in school, now part of the social contract? If some otherwise capable kids don't go to college because their families can't afford to send them, is this a social problem? Are subsidies to college education justified on these grounds?

The trend seems to be more and more to regard a college education as a right, not a privilege, at least for the kids who are willing and who are academically bright enough to handle it. I don't necessarily endorse that, but I understand it. It's not just the abstract principle of fairness; there's a risk that the legitimacy of the whole market system would be undermined if it came to be believed that the college-educated social classes were in effect hereditary, since poor kids couldn't afford to go to college. Yet at the same time, public subsidies to tertiary education benefit precisely those who are already the most prospectively privileged: the college-graduates-to-be. And

The idea of the "gap year" is an appealing alternative precisely because it could allow us to make concessions to the public feeling that college education should be a right, not a privilege, while reducing public subsidies to higher education and making those subsidies that were provided better targeted to the neediest, while making affluent students bear the full cost. Instead of providing subsidized student loans to everyone, you could provide generous savings-matching programs to young people who, after graduating from high school, took time off to save money for college. The government could create special savings accounts, where any funds deposited would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the government, and which could only be spent on college tuition (or perhaps living expenses). Also, the accumulation of money in these savings accounts during "gap years" would make students eligible for growing amounts of subsidized student loans later. Meanwhile, current subsidies to higher education would be scaled back, and subsidized loans for non-gap-year students would be eliminated.

Affluent students would not find it worthwhile to spend one or two years working low-skilled or blue-collar jobs in order to afford school. They would go right out of school, and their families would bear the full costs of their schooling, instead of splitting the bill with the taxpayers. Less-advantaged students would take gap years and save money.

Scott Clark writes:

David rightly points out, and Christina only serves to reinforce it for me, that if anybody needs a gap year, its because their high school experience was wasteful at best, or seriously damaging at worst. If you need a sabbatical to recover from the depradations inflicted by the modern high school experience, perhaps we should be arguing for way less compulsory schooling.

Stanford writes:

Sometimes I wonder if high is not just a waste of time for most people. Are there any data on the amount of people that would succeed in a university at age 15 vs. age 18? Looking back, at least my experience seems to be that I would have been more successful in school if I hadn't taken the 4 year detour of sex and alchohol education.

Heather writes:

Because people mature at different rates, I think that a gap year for some would be beneficial, and it sounds like many of those people are already taking one, however for others it would serve little to no purpose, other than possibly helping them learn some life skills, which could presumably be learned at any time.

Some students might be ready academically for college at an earlier age, but be unprepared to deal with the emotional aspects of living away from their parents. I think it would be a disservice to most students to cut more than the last two years of high school because they would not be emotionally ready to live on their own, or in a college setting.

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