The typical timeline for college-bound high school seniors is to start a few months after graduation—the first available opportunity. But is that unbroken path into college the right move for everyone? New research suggests that academic breaks after high school have both short- and long-term impacts on postsecondary enrollment and labor market outcomes. What those impacts are, however, and whether they’re positive or negative, depends on students’ academic readiness for college.
Researchers Nicolás de Roux and Evan Riehl from Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes and Cornell University, respectively, take advantage of a natural experiment using data from various regions of Colombia. While the majority of high schools in the country begin their academic years in January, approximately 500 in two regions traditionally operated on a schedule that began in September. Between 2008 and 2010, a majority of those schools transitioned to the January calendar to align with the rest of the country. The transition was gradual, occurring over two school years. As a result, graduation day for more than 26,000 high schoolers in 2009 was delayed by two months—too late for the September college admission window that they traditionally used and too early for the January window used by graduates in the rest of the country. Thus, even students who were qualified and wanted to attend college were forced to delay enrollment for three months longer than usual.
De Roux and Riehl compare these delayed enrollees’ postsecondary enrollment patterns and labor market outcomes with 2009 graduates in other parts of Colombia who were able to move immediately on to college and with regional peers who remained on the old schedule.
The lead finding was that the calendar shift reduced the number of students who started college at the first opportunity following graduation, even though the break was relatively short and had been anticipated. Relative to comparison schools, the immediate college enrollment rate fell by about 5 percentage points among all schools in the regions where the calendar switch occurred.
Only about half the students who were forced to delay entry went on to enroll in college at all, while others delayed for nearly two years. That is not unheard of in Colombia, the researchers note, but the magnitude of delayers—and those who never enroll—in these regions was far higher than anywhere else historically. The enforced break seems to be the culprit, although why an additional three months should have this dramatic an impact is unable to be clarified.
College persistence, interestingly, did not seem to change from historic rates despite this huge drop-off in attendance, suggesting that students who did not enroll due to the break were highly likely to have dropped out before completing had they attended.
On the labor market side and at seven years post-graduation, de Roux and Riehl observed very little difference in the mean monthly earnings of graduates from schools who switched calendars compared to peers in regions whose schools were always on that calendar. In other words, despite the larger number of no-shows in college, future earnings for the cohort affected by the schedule change were largely the same as for cohorts whose academic journeys were not interrupted. This adds further credence to the hypothesis that many of the delayers, or no-shows, would have dropped out anyway.
However, graduates in regions where most schools switched to the new calendar but their specific schools stayed on the old calendar experienced a 5 percent reduction in mean monthly earnings, as compared to peers in those other regions. This indicated to the researchers that these students were harmed by the break and the reduced likelihood of attending college. The schools that stayed on the old schedule were mostly private and their students came from higher economic status and had higher exit exam scores than the switching schools, leading de Roux and Riehl to investigate academic preparation as a possible mechanism driving the outcomes observed.
Adjusting for exit exam scores, students in the affected regions who were better prepared for college experienced more negative returns by forgoing college than did those who were less-prepared. That is, students who had been planning to go to college straight from high school—and were most academically ready—experienced more harm from the calendar switch. About half went to college eventually, but with a delay, and the other half moved on with their lives without the traditional postsecondary sojourn. Long-term earnings suffered as a result. Those who were less academically ready—but were planning for immediate college enrollment out of tradition or habit—were likely helped by the delay. About half of those students went immediately into the workforce instead, ending up in the same place as their no-college peers but without the expense of tuition and the unproductive time spent on a college path that would end up producing no degree.
All of this combines to reinforce the idea that giving college the “old college try” is not the best choice for everyone. Completion of a postsecondary degree is what matters most, and preparation is key to completion. Those who are ready seem to benefit from an uninterrupted academic journey; those who are not are likely to benefit from a breather, a rethink, or some expert advice with lots of options (especially work options) in mind.
SOURCE: Nicolás de Roux and Evan Riehl, “Disrupted academic careers: The returns to time off after high school,” Journal of Development Economics (February 2022).