The recent announcement that First Daughter Malia Obama would be taking a “Gap Year” before starting Harvard
University in 2017 has shed new light (and increased popularity) on a path typically taken by students in Europe and Australia. The Gap Year—a real world experience enabling students graduating from high school to test out the professional world, travel, or do volunteer service prior to beginning their first year of college—certainly has numerous benefits. While long-term success in the United States hasn’t been reported yet due to its fairly fledgling status here, emerging data on the Gap Year is promising. Recent studies conducted by The American Gap Association show that students who take a Gap Year are more focused, self-aware, driven and are more likely to stay in college, once enrolled. As educators and professionals in higher education, I believe this information is an invaluable tool as it relates to recruiting, specifically diversity recruiting. Because, in essence, the Gap Year is simply another category of nontraditional (read: diverse) students.
To those who say it’s an indulgent waste of money reserved for the privileged, I disagree. If used wisely both by students and institutions of higher education, a Gap Year has the ability to further career goals and motivate students. Whether they’re like Malia and have already been accepted (and deferred) to a school, or if they’re like countless others who are still finding themselves or can’t afford tuition, our hope is that, once they arrive at college after experiencing life in the real world, they won’t take it for granted. They’ll see the value in becoming as successful as they can and getting that college degree.
Our job as marketers of higher education is to make sure our schools fit their needs and their personalities and to give them a reason to stay. To highlight the programs, services and residential life in a way that speaks to them, especially once they are more focused about their futures. We must also ask ourselves if there is anything we can do to capitalize on this year, especially as we target minority students who typically have a harder time staying in school once enrolled.
Do we promote the Gap Year in our marketing materials? Do we offer credits to those who are taking a Gap Year so as not to lose their enrollment? Can we incentivize those who are still deciding whether to apply with more specialized scholarships aimed at their fields of interest? This is especially something worth exploring as we try to increase a diverse student body in our schools. Targeted marketing has always been the best way to reach an audience in any area. Knowing what people want, how they spend their time, what they do for work, what fuels their passions, where they feel the most comfortable, and, ultimately, how they will spend their hard earned dollars is, in my opinion, the only way to effectively recruit and retain students.
By paying close attention to the tracks these students are taking during their Gap Years, and by encouraging all students—both minority and majority—to take them, we as marketers of higher education will be in a better position to recruit and retain students who stay.
Jonathan Clues is the Founder and Vice Chairman of StudentBridge, inc, a digital marketing agency specializing in the production and delivery of video campaigns for education institutions to drive recruitment and increase enrollment of the right kind of student.