“Is it worth it for me to go to college?”
More importantly, is it worth it for me to go to college now? That’s the question many students like San Francisco senior Kyra Kushner have amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re unsure whether they’ll get the experience they’re paying for and have been looking forward to—and their experiences with emergency virtual instruction make them leery of the prospect of remote learning.
COVID-19 has forced plans to change. Incoming freshmen and transfer students alike have started to reassess their original enrollment decisions, with many placing a greater emphasis on factors like cost and stability. Other students are rethinking plans for the fall altogether, including delaying their enrollment and taking a gap year.
Nearly a quarter of prospective students are considering deferring enrollment to their preferred school by at least a semester or more, and some have even declined to apply to college at all, saying they’ll just wait until next year.
Certainly, the prospect of taking a year off has an inherent appeal. But it’s important for these prospective students to consider the potential hidden consequences of their decision carefully. What makes sense today could be problematic tomorrow.
What does a gap year during a pandemic look like, anyway?
One classic reason to plan a gap year is to travel, see the world, and pursue enrichment opportunities before starting college — learning through self-discovery. It’s probable, though, that COVID-19 will significantly curtail international travel, and possibly domestic travel as well.
Likewise, students who intend to use the gap year to work may find their plans impeded by COVID-19. The pandemic has harmed nearly every business to some extent, but the types of businesses that are likely to employ high school students and recent graduates (e.g., movie theaters, restaurants, retail stores) are particularly hard-hit.
Especially with so many adults with more professional experience looking for jobs themselves, trying to find work during a recession may not be viable for recent high school graduates. And even students who were employed prior to the pandemic may not have jobs to return to when restrictions are lifted. Businesses are operating at reduced capacity because of pandemic-related restrictions (such as limited occupancy) and, in part, due to lower consumer demand while customers are also out of work.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to take a gap year, but it does mean the decision should be considered carefully. Changing college enrollment plans on the fly could have serious consequences and long-term impact.
There’s no guarantee that the same options will be open in a year.
Again, COVID-19 means most businesses are only operating with limited capacity, and colleges and universities are not immune to that trend. If a significant number of potential students choose not to attend college during a select enrollment period, part-time professors, adjuncts, and guest lecturers may no longer be needed. This incremental workforce within colleges and universities helps institutions match class offerings to student demand. In turn, it also has a direct impact on the total number of students those institutions can admit within a single academic year. This trend could reduce the number of available spots for enrolling in Fall 2021 or later.
Competition in the upcoming academic year may also look different. Keep in mind that graduates who delay starting college this year will be competing for enrollment with next year’s graduates.
The goal of a gap year might be to keep one’s options open, but in the post-pandemic landscape, those options are not guaranteed. While it’s too soon to say for sure how difficult it will be to get into college in 2021, the risk is significant.
Even when students are ready to go to campus, there may not be a seat for them to occupy.
When gap year results in permanent college postponement, long-term career consequences can follow.
It could become more common — the gap year that doesn’t end. Decisions are made in a moment in time, and each passing moment presents a new set of circumstances that can further derail planned actions.
One study found that the college enrollment rate for gap year students a year later was 90%. Even that high figure still means that one in 10 students didn’t end up going to college as initially planned—and again, that’s a pre-pandemic figure looking primarily at planned gap years. It may be that students who take an unplanned gap year due to COVID-19 will have a significantly higher non-enrollment rate as their circumstances continue to evolve during the next year.
It’s understandable that prospective students view committing to attending college in the fall as risky. It’s also important to keep in mind that delaying college is a risky decision in itself.
Did You Know?
A 2019 study by the Community College Research Center found that students who do not enroll in college immediately after completing high school end up losing significant income over the long term. It turns out, an important part of ensuring that you finish college is keeping your education moving forward. A gap year makes a student less likely to ultimately earn a four-year degree. A student who starts college immediately after high school will finish college sooner and begin acquiring professional, post-college work experience that carries far more value to future employers.
No one knows how the job market will look four years from now —but we know even less about how the job market will look five years from now and beyond. A 2018 CNN Money article looked back on the Great Recession that began in late 2007 and found that it can take a decade or more for students who graduate during a recession to catch up financially. Faced with those prospects, delaying graduation only compounds the risk of having to play catch-up later.
What’s clear is that students who keep their education on track and finish their degrees sooner will have more options when entering the job market.
Online learning is an opportunity to stay on track—while keeping your options open.
In short, the safest course of action for most prospective students is to keep their education moving forward to maintain long-term options and minimize disruption.
For students who don’t want to be on campus in the fall, online education is an excellent alternative. An academically rigorous online degree program keeps students on track with their education while allowing them to stay home, maintain social distancing, and have the flexibility they need.
You can start online, stay—or transfer.
It’s also important to remember that going online for freshman year doesn’t mean committing to four years of online education; it’s relatively easy to transition from an online program to an on-campus program if and when the student feels comfortable doing so.
Completing the freshman year online is an opportunity to knock out gen-ed requirements and stay on pace for their desired on-campus university. Other students find that they thrive in the online learning environment and elect to stay in their online programs despite their original plans.
Prospective students face unprecedented challenges right now, but the answer to those challenges is to keep their education on track as much as possible. For many students, online education—a safe, affordable, flexible, option—is the answer.