On its face, a "gap year" — a break between high-school graduation and freshman year involving work, travel or volunteering —...

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On its face, a “gap year” — a break between high-school graduation and freshman year involving work, travel or volunteering — sounds appealing.

But whether this hiatus breaks students’ momentum or jump-starts their initiative is a question parents, students and even college experts wrestle with.

Many colleges allow a gap year by offering deferred admission, holding a student’s spot for one year after acceptance. It’s a common practice in many European countries, and officials at some Ivy League schools even endorse a gap year. Advocates consider the year away valuable time to mature and gain “real-world” perspective.

Delaying can derail you

But one long-term study at Johns Hopkins University shows putting off freshman year for any reason can hurt a student in the long run.

“On average, any kind of delay is a bad thing,” says Stefanie DeLuca, assistant professor of sociology and co-author of a report that tracked thousands of students up to eight years after high school. And that includes those who take a year off to sock away money for college expenses.

It’s particularly a problem, she found, for those who delay college enrollment by more than one year: They’re 64 percent less likely to complete their bachelor’s degree than those who head straight to college.

On the other hand, she says, “You’re going to have kids who are going to take a year off and do just fine. We do see it. A gap year is not a nail in the coffin.”

What’s the key?

The success stories

Successful gap-year students are ready with firm plans about how to be useful during their break, she says. As others like to put it, it’s the difference between taking a year off and taking a year on.

Economics play a part, though. DeLuca notes that kids from poor and working-class families can’t afford to take advantage of gap-year experiences that could be enriching but don’t pay well. That effectively limits just how widespread the gap-year phenomenon can become.

“Middle- and upper-class kids may fall back on the excuse, ‘I’m exploring my identity,’ but this is an opportunity that is as not as common as people think,” DeLuca says. “Taking a year off to explore France or work in the inner city? Most people don’t have these options. Life doesn’t work that way.”

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