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Taking time off after high school may make students less likely to go to college

Researchers say students may struggle with going back to school after a break

Graduate receiving diploma
Photo (c) Adina Olteanu 500px - Getty Images
While many high school students may be tempted to put off going to college right away, a new study conducted by researchers from Cornell University has found evidence that this may not be the best idea.

In analyzing two populations of high school students in Colombia, the team learned that taking time off after high school may prevent students from ever enrolling in college at all. 

“In Colombia, as in many countries, college dropout rates are really high,” said researcher Evan Riehl. “There is wide variation in the quality of colleges and the amount of resources that colleges have to help students graduate. So students must be academically prepared and motivated to earn a degree. 

“We find that individuals who were prepared to succeed in college would have had large returns to attending college, and in this sense they made a ‘mistake’ by not enrolling. Other students, however, may have dropped out of college anyway, and so forgoing college did not have a big impact on their careers.” 

Understanding college enrollment decisions 

For the study, the researchers analyzed college enrollment outcomes in a group of nearly 30,000 high school students in Colombia. In the two regions that the study was focused on, a policy had altered the students’ academic calendars that required them to start college a semester later than they normally would. 

While one semester may not seem like a lot of time, the researchers learned that it made a difference in terms of how many students chose not to return to school. Overall, nearly 10% of students never enrolled in college. 

The study showed that students from disadvantaged socioeconomic and academic backgrounds were the most affected by this policy change, and they were the least likely to go back to college. 

The researchers also learned that this gap in schooling impacted the earning potential of many higher-achieving students. By starting school later, they weren’t making as much money in the early parts of their careers as they could have if they started school on time. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope more efforts are implemented that help guide students through the end of their time in high school and either the beginning of college or their lives in the workforce. 

“In the U.S. and Colombia, students have more flexibility in choosing which colleges to apply to after high school,” the researchers wrote. “More flexible education systems can lead to indecision in the transition from high school to college, and thus create breaks in students’ academic careers… The returns to college may be low if students are less prepared or less motivated.” 

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