While taking unstructured time away from enrollment in university classes generally leads to negative outcomes for young adults, a new study from BYU suggests that structured gap time – time taken away from school for experiential learning to deepen practical or personal awareness – can help students determine their strengths and preferences. In particular, the study found that female Latter-day Saint students at BYU who take gap time to serve a mission were more likely to be accepted into limited enrollment programs and find majors with higher expected salaries.
The research, led by BYU librarian Maggie Marchant and School of Family Life professor Dr. Jocelyn Wikle, examined the administrative student data of more than 17,000 female BYU students who enrolled in the five-year period before the 2012 missionary age policy change, tracking their progress through 2020. 29.1% of female students enrolled during this period served a mission.
Researchers found that women who served missions were 33% more likely to change into a major with higher earning potential than women who didn’t take gap time, likely because missionary service added increased confidence, skills, and opportunities to cultivate talents. Missionary service also helped women who had struggled academically; among women with the lowest third of ACT scores, those who served missions were 19% more likely to be accepted into competitive or limited enrollment programs.
“I was encouraged to see that missions are helpful for students who are hard workers, but struggled on tests,” said Wikle. “Completing a mission can be a channel for someone who doesn’t look perfect on paper to set themselves apart in competitive situations and show that they can provide value and be successful.”
BYU senior Clara Cullen said taking gap time to serve a mission in Frankfurt, Germany provided a time for her to increase in maturity and personal awareness as she served people from various cultures. Upon returning to BYU, Cullen switched majors and enrolled in the political science program and is set to graduate this April. Motivated by a love of God and others, she hopes to use the skills she’s developed in public policy and research to offer creative solutions to the pressing problems of the world.
“I had always been interested in human behavior and what causes people to make decisions, but it wasn’t until my mission where I got to serve people different than me in a country that had different politics than mine that helped me think about how I could use my passion and skills to make an impact on people,” she said.
Researchers say there are some costs to gap time, including the opportunity cost of delayed entrance into the workforce. And while some students are at risk of dropping out of college after gap time, this wasn’t true of female missionaries, 96% of whom returned to college. However, they were 10% less likely to graduate in 8 years than peers who didn’t take gap time.
“I encourage anyone considering taking time away from school to be aware of how gap time slows progress toward graduation,” says Wikle. “Proactively making plans about how to get back into school and make progress toward graduation will help students to have meaningful experiences away from college without sacrificing their degree.”
Wikle says the findings from her research provide a compelling argument for the value of structured gap time, particularly for female students who are increasingly volunteering missionary service time. By gaining practical, personal, and professional awareness, structured gap time can help students make informed decisions about their future career paths and ultimately reduce gender disparities in the workforce.
The full research brief is available online through the Utah Women and Leadership Project.