On Campus

"Gappers" more employable, less wealthy: study

Taking time off before going to university or college a mixed blessing, according to Canadian Council on Learning

Taking time off between high school and university or college might make students more employable, but it may also mean that they’ll make less money than those who enrolled in higher education immediately.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report from the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), “gappers” — students who take at least four months off to travel or work before entering the post-secondary world.

In terms of employability, gappers apparently hold the advantage over non-gappers; employment rates are 87.5 per cent and 79.6 per cent, respectively.

But non-gapper university graduates earn on average $85 more per week than gappers with the same level of education: $625 compared to $540. However, college graduates earned similar income regardless of how much time they took between high school and post-secondary studies ($552/week for non-gappers, $550/week for gappers).

The basis for CCL information on income levels was a Statcan report on gappers, which referenced the 2004 Youth in Transition survey. The study did not normalize for differences in high school performance among the two groups, nor did it present data showing whether the gappers had lower high school grades than their non-gapper peers.

The report suggests that gappers with university degrees are more employable “because they finish their post-secondary studies with more experience in the work force.” Those who went straight to university after high school make more money because, according to the report, they “finish … earlier and have more time to reap the income-based rewards.”

There is no explanation offered for the similar income levels earned by gapper and non-gapper college grads.

University of Ottawa education professor Joel Westheimer said that the report brings to light a broader issue about the changing role of universities.

“The thing that caught my attention is not so much the employability and income gap, but the very fact that there are more and more gappers,” he said. “The trend clearly also reflects something students think they are missing from the current university experience.”

Westheimer said that as universities and colleges focus increasingly on performing a job-training function, students and their families are looking elsewhere for what he called “life training and exposure to the broader world.”

The report had its shortcomings, Westheimer said. It didn’t differentiate between the kinds of experiences students have during their gap in studies, nor did it pay much statistical heed beyond an initial explanation to the reasons students take time off.

Westheimer added that gappers are a diverse crowd, not just a group of people who take time off for the same reason, and that makes empirical analysis of their experience quite difficult.

“(The CCL) can’t be very conclusive. The report points to a trend that is worth more careful study, but because of the difficulty in creating a control group, it’s more exploratory than conclusive,” he said.

According to the report, Canadian high-school graduates are most likely to choose and stick with one of two paths: either pursue post-secondary studies immediately, or enter the workforce and never enrol in higher education. Becoming a gapper—going to university or college, but only after time off or time in the workforce—is less common. The provinces that are exceptions are Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and Alberta. In Ontario, during the period studies there were more gappers than non-gappers. Alberta had the highest proportion of students who entered into the workforce and did not pursue post-secondary studies. And Newfoundland has the reverse: the lowest proportion of students choosing to forgo post-secondary education.

The data used in that analysis came out of the 2004 Youth in Transition survey. Westheimer said Ontario’s surprising results may be a temporary blip, due to the double cohort of high-school grads in 2003-04. (Ontario eliminated grade 13, and effectively had two graduating high school classes—the so-called double cohort—entering university and college at the same time). Many of those double cohort students chose to delay their studies. In Alberta, Westheimer said, the job market is too attractive for many high school grads to pass up.

In terms of gapper and non-gapper academic success, the report sheds little information on the Canadian experience. It does point out, though, that American gappers are less likely to complete their studies, and Australian gappers (in a survey at one university) do a little better — 2.3 per cent on average — in school. The CCL says that it is “unclear” whether or not Canadian patterns are similar.

The CCL report applauded the work some universities have done to support students who want to take a year off, pointing to Princeton as an example (as we reported here a few months ago) of a school who allowed incoming students to take a year off before starting class to “complete social work around the world”. A new program to be rolled out at Princeton in 2009 will see up to 10 per cent of the incoming class do work overseas, potentially with financial assistance from the school.