A gap year is time some students take away from the college classroom to volunteer, find themselves and generally prepare for the higher ed experience. Last fall, Boise State pioneered a structured gap year program to help retain students during the pandemic.
Just before the pandemic hit, 23-year old Boise State student Autumn Lay hit a rough patch on her way to a degree.
“I was taking classes that I enjoyed instead of classes that I had to take,” she said. “I was starting to stray away from mechanical engineering.”
She began her time at Boise State with a clear path: NASA. Classes were already tough; remote learning made things harder. Her situation came to a head last spring with several failed classes.
“And so then I was like, all right: I'm not going back in the fall," Lay said.
She didn’t want to quit altogether, but wasn’t sure exactly how — or what — to pivot to. It’s a more common story than you might think.
Studies show about one-third of students leave their two or four-year college without graduating. Some do come back: A national student clearinghouse survey found 13% of unenrolled students in 2014 with some college crediys had re-enrolled within the next five years.
Last year, educators worried the pandemic could turn students off from higher education for good.
“Students persist in college because of relationships,” said Megan Gambs, of Boise State’s Institute for Inclusive and Transformative Scholarship.
So last fall, Boise State kicked off its Bronco Gap Year program with about 20 participants. The primary goal was to reach students apprehensive about beginning college outside the traditional campus experience.
Each participating student works with a faculty mentor like Gambs, an academic advisor, coach and a career counselor to help guide the journey.
“It's an opportunity to take a breather," she said. "To take a break if you're an existing student. To really focus yourself and figure out what it is that you want to do to best optimize your time at Boise State."
There are peer mentors in the program as well, like current sophomore Abby Taylor.
“My conversations mostly are like, ‘Hi, how can I be here to support you?'" Taylor explained. “I facilitate more of that friend conversation of, ‘I want you to feel like you're fitting in. I want you to feel like you have someone who's rooting you on.'”
Gap year mentors guide structured exploration, and participants maintain a campus connection, all for a fraction of regular tuition. Each determines a term project or portfolio to create and can earn college credit.
For Lay, who works full time at a local precious metals dealer, the program’s mentorship structure was critical.
“Without them, I don't think I would have been as successful during this last year as I have been,” she said.
Gap year program director Kelly Myers says feedback from the students who signed up immediately made the experience better.
“We learned quickly that part of why [students] wanted a gap year was because they wanted a larger landscape to explore and not a specific themed program,” she said.
Myers, an Associate Professor of English and Interim Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Boise State, said the guardrails of the program need to be large enough to let a path take its natural course but not so wide students would feel overwhelmed just choosing a starting point.
“I would say it's academic fine-tuning for the students who have been at Boise State, or kind of a reorientation,” she said.
Navigating around full-time employment is also a common thread, said student Kevin Gutierrez.
“It just seemed like there was a lot of opportunity for me to look into little classes like on Coursera,” he explained. Coursera is the university’s online classroom platform. “At the same time connecting with an actual community, it's a perfect way to have that college community as well as looking into things that I'm obviously interested in.”
“We also learned that it helps them if they have goals that are in smaller bites,” Myers said. “It still is all driven by their interests and goals: then the team just sort of helps them step-by-step to move towards those goals.”
She said the secret sauce of the program’s success thus far is the wraparound support from advisors, mentors, coaches and fellow students. Those perspectives made the difference for Lay, who said she expects to return part-time to Boise State in the fall.
“I talked with both my career advisor [and] my career counselor,” Lay said. “Both of them really helped to open up my eyes of what I actually want in a workplace and how I am as a person.”
Myers said the program’s strong rollout has piqued the interest of other universities.
“Louisiana Tech is going to launch the Bronco Gap Year model there this summer,” she said. Myers is launching a research project on results from the two programs. The University of Cincinnati is also interested in the Boise State model, she said.
Expanding the program and retaining the extensive hands-on guidance that’s been so successful will require more resources. The ratio of support personnel per student is challenging to scale up.
For now, the pilot program will continue this fall. Long-term, Myers said Boise State’s gap year model could also be an important low-cost onramp to kids from underserved areas who might not otherwise consider going to college.
“I just can't wait till the end of this spring when we get to see the showcase, this incredible range of creative and intellectual and exploratory work that [students have] done," she said.
“I said early on: it was kind of theoretical, sort of, ‘We have this idea of a thing. We think it's going to be cool,’ and now we're going to actually be able to see it. And I can't wait for that.”
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