First-generation college students have far lower graduation rates than more privileged students. To solve this problem, we must reframe the existing motivations for higher education for underserved students. Purpose, direction, and the cultivation of identity must take the front seat, providing the intrinsic motivation that drives them to academic success. These priorities stand in stark contrast to the common message used to motivate first-generation college students — that a college degree will result in higher paying jobs. Particularly in higher education, encouraging first-generation students to follow their interests and passions will lead to richer academic engagement, improved college graduation rates, and more fulfilling careers. Experience and studies suggest that gap year programming may be a key component of this strategy to improve outcomes for first-generation college students in higher education.
A Counter Intuitive Solution to the College Dropout Crisis
Today, 43% of first-generation and low-income students are not graduating from college within six years. In my conversations with directors at community-based organizations (CBOs), it became clear that many factors create obstacles for underserved students. These factors include not having people at home who understand the college experience, needing to work in order to pay for school, and not feeling a sense of belonging on campus. Many organizations work admirably and tirelessly to support students up to and throughout college. Their efforts are critical; supporting students to create better lives for themselves and their families. However, what is seldom mentioned is the need for students to have a sense of purpose and direction for their learning, rooted in their own passions and values.
It’s the desire to learn about things that matter to them — not just earn a diploma — that allows students to persist in the classroom when faced with academic, personal, and family struggles. Without this intrinsic motivation, college can be difficult to endure. Paul Fields, Director of College Partnerships at College Track, says that students are cognizant of the costs of college and are less likely to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans if they don’t know what they want out of the experience. Encouraging students to enroll in college when they are unsure of the value of college is a recipe for failure. Without a sense of direction, students may be better off earning money for themselves and their family, rather than accumulating debt in college. Encouraging students to find their passions as a foundation for their purpose and direction is a necessary supplement to the work that college access organizations do to support students in accessing and unlocking the full value of higher education.
It is hopeful that many CBOs recognize that the deeper purpose of a college education is to enable students to cultivate purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in their lives. The challenge is to demonstrate to first-generation students that they, too, can pursue the fulfillment, social change, and creativity that has been for so long reserved for privileged students. If we do not reframe the purpose of education for these students, we risk the perpetuation of injustice and the dropout crisis.
One way to help students gain intrinsic motivation for college is through an intentional and purposeful gap year program. Thinking Beyond Borders’ impact assessment shows promising signs that their programming helps students develop a sense of purpose and direction for their college education. Giving students the room to critically engage with the world brings greater relevance to academics and helps uncover new interests. Nina Hoe, who wrote her dissertation about delayers and gap year students, posits that an intentional gap year has positive influence across the board, regardless of social identity and background. Furthermore, her research reveals that a gap year can also lead to higher GPAs and an enriched engagement with higher education, even when controlling for background. By helping students find a sense of purpose for their education beyond just a well-paying job, gap years create students who do better in college.
Making Gap Years Accessible to All
Despite growing buzz around gap years (the New York Times and Tuft’s 1+4 program), there’s a tremendous inequity in access to these experiences. It’s primarily those who can afford a gap year, have a supportive family, and belong to approving communities who take gap years. So why are those who stand to benefit the most from additional academic and emotional preparation before college – first-generation and underserved students – often discouraged from taking a gap year? And, how do we make gap years accessible to all?
I’ve been pursuing these questions for a couple of years now. What I’ve found so far is that students of color face three key barriers in participating in a gap year: lack of financial, parental, and social support. While I originally assumed that money was the main reason why first-generation, low-income, and traditionally underserved students didn’t take gap years, I found that the lack of parental and social support often prevented students from even considering a gap year, regardless of cost. I’ve also found that college access organizations often pushback against gap years for first-generation students. They express fear that students won’t return to college, that it’s an extra year that students are not making money, and that programs are too expensive. Fortunately, there are strong responses to those issues. Many programs offer financial aid and scholarships, and some like City Year and Americorps pay students to participate and award college funds. Perhaps most importantly, a gap year would help prevent college-bound students from dropping out and allow them to unlock greater value from higher education.
Some questions remain as I develop my understanding of gap years for first-generation college students. Since the number of first-generation students who take gap years is small, it is difficult to measure how gap years impact this group of students. Do gap years impact first-generation students differently than more privileged students? If so, how? And if organizations begin to bring in more students from diverse backgrounds, how might they support them and deliver those outcomes?
By encouraging first-generation students to find purpose and direction, we can provide a pathway that will lead to higher college graduation rates. An emphasis on developing purpose and direction will empower these students with intrinsic motivation for an education that engages their interests and values. Their reasons for attaining a college degree will go beyond just a paycheck, grounding them in a career that is meaningful and fulfilling. As a result, first-generation students will be more likely to persist through college.
This is a guest post by Winson Law, Cohort III scholar who is currently Junior at Middlebury College. Winson created opportunities with MiddCORE and Thinking Beyond Borders to research why and how to make gap years accessible to first-generation college students.