Is it a good idea to take a gap year during the coronavirus?

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With the coronavirus continuing to keep us home and keep schools and campuses closed, high school seniors and their families are assessing whether their college plans should change as a result. One of the changes they are considering is to not go to college next year at all, even after having gone through the entire application process this year.

 

A survey by Niche of over 40k students found that 7% of high school students were considering not enrolling or deferring their admission a year. 

 

In normal times, this is called a “gap year” - a year-long break before becoming a college freshman in which a student can travel, take a job or internship, or other pursuits. Occasionally, students use the opportunity to reapply to colleges if their top choice did not accept them or they were not able to afford the colleges on their original list.

 

These are not normal times, though - so the usual considerations about gap years don’t apply. Here are some of the pros and cons we see of considering a gap year in 2020-2021.

 

Pros:

More time to wait COVID-19 out: No one knows exactly how long this will last - and it may well change things in the fall semester. So if you wait a year, you’ll be more likely to have the traditional residential college experience you’re expecting (without, for example, having to take courses online if dorms are closed - which most colleges are considering a possibility). Plus, you can save money and stay closer to home in a time of uncertainty.

 

Expand your options: Like a typical gap year, a year off allows you to get new experiences and potentially reapply to colleges that weren’t previously in reach. 

 

Reduce your costs: Students can use the time to take courses online from the college, attend a community college, or use a provider like Straighterline to earn college credits that can transfer in to your eventual college of choice. These are credits you won’t have to pay for later - so your overall cost of college can be reduced. Note: credit transfer policies are complex so make sure to research what will actually transfer, if this is your plan.

 

Confirm where you really want to go: If your student is nervous about where they actually want to go, you will have time to visit campuses and make sure their top choice school is a good fit.

 

Develop new skills: If you have the means, this could be a wonderful time to pursue educational experiences that are not usually available in a first-year college curriculum (think of things like online bootcamps, music, writing).

 

Cons:

Lower opportunity cost: labor market economists know that during a recession or period of high unemployment, many people tend to go back to school (college or grad school). That is because their opportunity cost, or what they are missing out on by not working, is lower - it’s harder to get a high-paying job anyway, so it’s a good time to work towards a degree. The same applies today: it’s not a good time to look for a job, and we hope it will be better in 4 years when today’s high school seniors are graduating. So while things are bad, there is an economic argument that studying is actually the best use of your student’s time.

 

Living expenses don’t go away. Just because a student is living at home doesn’t mean you won’t have any expenses. They still need to eat! And some things like health insurance can be cheaper through a school than through parents.

 

Employment opportunities may be limited.  As mentioned above, the economy is not strong and will likely need some time to recover. Many jobs that are typically accessible to college-age students - for instance, those in retail, restaurants, or coffee shops - will be unavailable (at least in the short term) given those businesses are closed in most parts of the country.

 

Other activities will also be limited. Things like domestic and international travel and community service won’t be available as normal either. 

 

Losing momentum. There’s a risk that students that don’t continue to college now won’t have the initiative to do so when school is farther in the past. Make sure you assess your child’s motivations and make alternative plans that won’t derail their educational path.

 

Unknowns:

Admissions

Many colleges allow students to defer admission a year once accepted, but the policies vary by college. Some will require you to reapply next year if you want to attend. Check with your university as this is also a policy that could be shifting given the coronavirus.

 

The cost of college

As we’ve discussed, the financial health of many colleges is at risk -- and the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating this risk for essentially every college and university. As a college becomes less financially stable, its pricing generally goes lower, in order to entice more students to attend and provide income. But with the state of the economy, this may not be the case. There may be less merit money available next year, for instance, if endowment investments are down and more students require financial assistance. On the other hand, there may be more aggressive “discounting” by colleges who have seen drops in enrollment and need to entice more students to attend. This calculus will vary by college and it is not clear that colleges yet know how they will respond. 

 

As you consider deferring college a year, walk through the implications with your family and make sure you understand the benefits and risks associated. Map out different scenarios and how they might affect your activities and choices - and get comfortable with each.

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