The Search for Data on Gap Year Effectiveness: An Interview with Bob Clagett

By Anna Nickerson, Babson College Class of ’22

As noted in these posts and elsewhere, universities are seeing a tremendous surge in students deferring their enrollment to take a Gap Year. Freshmen students understandably do not want to start their college journey online and are seeking options elsewhere. According to the Boston Globe, 20% of Harvard’s incoming first-year students have deferred their admission this year, compared to about 7% last fall. Harvard College has long promoted Gap Years to incoming students, and is also one of eleven member institutions of the Gap Year Research Consortium at Colorado College (GYRC). GYRC is a new organization designed to “encourage and disseminate the results of higher educational research on the outcomes of students taking a gap year between high school and college”.

Gap Year Solutions recently had the opportunity to meet with Bob Clagett (virtually, of course), the Coordinator of GYRC. Bob has over 45 years of experience at both ends of the college admissions process, most of them working at colleges. He told me that working within Harvard College Admissions & Financial Aid for 21 years planted the seed for him to seek out more information about Gap Years. (Bob also spent time at Middlebury College, which is a big supporter of Gap Years.) As he saw students come onto campus with dazed looks and haphazard approaches to navigating college, he knew that Gap Years were a good idea. And while he only knew anecdotally that a Gap Year could be beneficial, he started thinking about ways that he could tangibly measure this thesis. Here are excerpts from my conversation with Bob.

Gap Year Solutions: What is your role within GYRC? How did you get involved and why?

Bob: I am the Coordinator of GYRC, so I do everything except for the number crunching. My background is in college admissions and I grew familiar with the benefits of Gap Years over my career. I remember going to speak at a panel for college admissions in New York City and the former Dean of Students at Tufts said to the crowd, “Everyone in the U.S. takes a Gap Year… it’s called freshman year!” Although everyone laughed, it is a sad reality that this approach to freshman year is all too common. If more students took a gap year, it would be good for the students, the parents, and the institutions. I wanted to develop more momentum and gain more traction in leading the research efforts for Gap Years.

GYS: What prompted the creation of GYRC?

Bob: I knew that if we had high-end research that only universities could create due to their access to student data and faculty expertise, we could then disseminate the info and data about Gap Years. The head of Colorado College admissions had been a good friend of mine since graduate school. Colorado College is a school that is very supportive of Gap Years, so I made a proposal to the president of the college and she was intrigued with the idea. From that, GYRC was born.

GYS: Who is involved in GYRC?

Bob: We have a great, diverse group of colleges that I’m excited about. Last year was our first year as an organization. As of now, Bennington College, Colorado College, Denison University, Duke University, Florida State University, Harvard College, Lafayette College, University of Oregon, Stanford, Tufts University and Portland State University (OR) are our member institutions. We are hoping to get to 15-20 schools in the next year.

GYS: What are the big hypotheses that GYRC is testing? When can we expect to see results coming out?

Bob: One big concern for colleges and higher education is students’ emotional health. We are looking at the impact of a Gap Year on all parts of the undergraduate experience, but really focusing on on-campus and civic engagement, social behavior, and emotional/mental wellbeing. We just finished up our pre-Gap Year survey that our member institutions will use, which will enable us to then keep track of students throughout their four-year undergraduate experience. Gathering this information will take several years as we are doing a five-year longitudinal study looking at students during their Gap Year and undergraduate careers.

Last year we did a study of the academic performance of students who had taken a gap year, and, surprise surprise, Gap Year students did quite a lot better on average! But more importantly, the results showed that students who had taken a gap year actually performed better academically than would have been predicted.

One of the unseen benefits of the pandemic is the increasing number of students who are taking Gap Years across the board. My guess is that this increase of students taking Gap Years will mean they will end up being more representative of the rest of the student body. I am hopeful that there will be more lower-income students and students of color who are taking a Gap Year. When we have enough information on these students, we hope this will provide us with a new and more representative database.

GYS: What advice do you have for students about to take a Gap Year?

Bob: Be intentional about what you want to get out of it, whether it is something as tangible as learning a new language or musical instrument, or something as intangible as learning more about women’s’ rights in another country. Design an experience that will then help you accomplish what you want to get out of your Gap Year. I think there is also an assumption that a Gap Year has to cost a lot of money, but particularly if you design your own gap year experience, it really does not have to. It is most important that students ask themselves what they genuinely want to get out of this experience – they aren’t doing it to impress college counselors or other external parties – and then execute that plan.

To learn more about the Gap Year Research Consortium, please visit their website or contact Bob

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