Continued uncertainty means many college students aren't sure what the next year of school will look like. Should they sit it out? The answer is: it depends.
Thanks to the state-wide lockdown forced upon us by coronavirus, many high school seniors in Massachusetts were hit this spring with the sad reality that the end of their high school experience would lack the usual rites of passage. Quarantine meant no prom, no graduation ceremony, no backyard barbeques to say goodbye to friends.
Now, they are on to facing new kinds of realities mired in uncertainty. The question is: what happens now?
With no guarantees about quarantine levels and phasing back into normal life again, the issue of what to do about entering college in the fall hangs in the air.
It appears many incoming college students are not so enthusiastic about betting that there will be an open campus to head to in September. In fact, a poll by the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group finds nearly one in six graduating seniors says that due to the pandemic, they will likely change plans to attend college this coming year and will instead take a gap year.
This increased interest in taking a gap year is reflected in the web site patterns that Gap Year Association registers lately. Associate Director Dianna Hahn said in late April the site registered about 45 percent more traffic over the previous year.
“People are going to the accredited programs section. They are looking at deferral policies at schools. They are looking in general for information about what is a gap year,” said Hahn. “There is a whole new wave of families considering a gap year now due to the uncertainty of what schools have to offer.”
Indeed, the idea of dropping the price tag of tuition for classes online may not be as appealing to some who crave the social and community aspects of attending a college on a physical campus, and that has many second-guessing the choice to enroll for fall.
But at Gap Year Association, Hahn said they do not see a gap year as simply a break. The organization advocates for and helps interested students navigate everything from travel to volunteer opportunities as a way to have a personally enriching experience before heading back into an education environment the next year.
“We consider it a year on,” said Hahn. “In many years we are reinventing what that looks like. And we’re learning as much as anyone else at this point. We are hoping to be as creative as possible and offer certainties for those that want to take a gap year.”
Hahn said for those involved in coordinating gap years arrangements, that might mean partnering with other domestic organizations to open up more opportunities that won’t require long distance travel due to the uncertainty of what travel might be like in the fall. Other motivated students have expressed interest in finding a way to help out in their local communities with COVID-19-related causes, because they want to give back by volunteering. These arrangements could also involve remote but helpful work for organizations involved with pandemic work, said Hahn.
“It could be an arrangement where they lend a helping hand to an organization with project-based work with mentorship,” she said. “We are pushing the idea of Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C.”
At Assumption College in Worcester, Robert Mirabile, the school’s vice president of enrollment management said it is still too early to know whether or not wider-spread interest in a gap year among students will have an impact on the numbers returning to Assumption’s campus in the fall.
“A gap year can be a good fit for a student depending on the goals of the student. Some have well developed plans. A year of community service or some kind of travel or a community engagement endeavor. In cases like that we are very supportive of it,” said Mirabile.
Assumption does not have a large percentage of students who choose a gap year, and whether that changes remains in question. But Mirabile thinks those considering taking the year should consider carefully what they hope to accomplish during that period before diving in to make a decision to defer enrollment.
“Each student will have a series of trade-offs to make when delaying entering or finishing a college education,” he said. “For some students, their career and life plans when they graduate at 22 or 23 is not material. But others may have in mind “I want to be an elementary teacher” and delaying entry into the profession may be meaningful to their overall goals.”
And Mirabile also points out that colleges and universities will have solid contingency plans in place in the event that remote learning must continue. For those students who don’t have clear plans for how to spend a gap year, getting started on education may be the best bet – even if the year may not look like originally planned.
“So many instructors are highly motivated to work with students, if a student is motivated to learn. It really can be a good experience. If the student is looking hard about what they want to accomplish, if they are thinking about advancing their college career, ultimately they will be learning.”
Another factor that may play into how many students actually decide to take a gap year is the financial aid offered by the school of choice. As Mirabile notes, while the pandemic may impact families’ financial ability to pay, it could also change financial aid packages should the student defer.
Gap Year’s Associate’s Hahn said they actively encourage students from taking a gap year if they have a strong financial package that could be endangered by time off.
But ultimately, taking a gap year should be about self-reflection and growth, said Hahn.
They are encouraging students to check in with admissions counselors if it is a consideration. But she notes that delaying entry due to COVID-19 fallout may not be a good enough reason for admissions counselors. Schools being asked to consider deferment will want to hear more about the intent of the student’s plan to take the year away from campus.
“Admissions counselors are going to want to hear about what the student is going to be doing,” she said. “If a student thinks it is the right choice for them, now may be the time to look broader and find ways to give back to the world.”