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Timing Matters: How Delaying College Enrollment Affects Earnings Trajectories

By: Yuxin Lin & Vivian Yuen Ting Liu
Timing Matters: How Delaying College Enrollment Affects Earnings Trajectories

High school graduates often delay college enrollment, but few studies have looked at the effects of this choice on their educational attainment and success in the labor market. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, this paper compares the academic and labor market outcomes of high school graduates who delay college enrollment (“delayers”) and those who enroll in college immediately (“on-time enrollees”) up to 13 years after high school completion.

The results show that delaying college enrollment decreases individuals’ likelihood of enrolling in college and increases their tendency to enroll in two-year colleges if they do return to school. Delayers experience early earnings benefits, but these fade out after their mid-20s and turn to significant losses over time. Differences in student characteristics only explain one third of the pay gap between delayers and on-time enrollees; 60 percent of the pay gap is explained by delayers’ reduced likelihood of attending and obtaining a degree at a four-year college.