The COVID-19 pandemic has upended much of the world, and colleges are no exception. Around the world, colleges have sent students home and implemented virtual classes. No more dorm living, cheering for your team at sports games, or meeting new people in the cafeteria. Now, many students are learning via online classes in their parent's homes. And, unfortunately, no one yet knows if the coronavirus will be contained enough to allow campuses to open up in the fall. For incoming college freshmen, this is a huge blow. They already missed out on their final months of high school, along with all that entails such as prom and graduation. Now they might begin their college experience in much the same way.
For some of these students, the thought of losing even more traditional experiences, such as moving into the dorms with a roommate, joining college clubs, and engaging in classroom debates, is enough to make them consider postponing college until students can return to classes. In fact, if schools don't resume in-person classes, more students than ever before may end up taking a gap year. Currently, 16% of high school seniors are planning to take a gap year rather than virtual classes.
But is deferring college during a pandemic the right decision for you? What factors do you need to consider and what questions do you need to ask yourself before you decide? We go over everything you need to know and think about to make the best decision for you.
Should You Take a Gap Year During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
With all the changes due to the coronavirus, should you defer college? In this section, we lay out the pros and cons of taking a gap year during a pandemic.
What are the benefits of taking a gap year as opposed to a semester or year of virtual college classes? Here are five of the most important.
#1: Can Avoid Virtual Classes
Online classes are one of those things that sound great (you can do your classes on the couch while wearing pajamas!) but, in reality, most people don't end up enjoying them nearly as much as they expected. You're stuck at home, can't be with your friends, often are dealing with lagging video, and are missing a lot of the debate and engagement that can make in-person classes so interesting. Not to mention that many students don't feel that virtual classes are worth the tuition they're paying. It's no wonder students want to avoid more of this. If your college decides to keep classes virtual in the fall, you can avoid another semester of classes spent online by deferring your first semester.
#2: Won't Lose the Traditional College Experience
There's much more to college than just attending classes. Moving into a dorm, attending sports games, even just sharing meals with friends in the cafeteria are all parts of the college experience that you lose when you're not on campus. If the thought of starting your freshman year of college sitting in your parent's home doesn't appeal to you, you may want to delay starting school by a semester or a year.
#3: May Reduce Chance of Becoming Ill
There's no guarantee against catching the coronavirus, but if you're especially concerned about becoming ill, you may want to avoid college campuses, where thousands of people are in close contact every day. Staying at home can mean you have a smaller chance of contracting the coronavirus and then passing it onto someone else.
#4: Potential for New Skills and Experiences
There are lots of ways to spend a gap year: traveling, pursuing an individual project, working, interning, etc. Really the only limit is your imagination. For practically all of these options you'll learn new skills, and some may give you work experience and letters of recommendation that will help your career prospects later. If there's a certain skill or knowledge area you want to gain or improve in, a gap year can be a great way to focus on it.
#5: May Be Able to Earn Money
This highly depends on what you do during your gap year, but if your goal is to get a job and work, you can make a significant amount of money that you can put towards college costs. Even a minimum wage job, if you work full-time, will earn you at least $15,000 a year. This is especially helpful if other sources of college funding, such as parent contributions, have shrunk as a result of the economic instability due to the pandemic.
You should also be aware of potential drawbacks to taking a gap year. Before we go into them though, let's discuss one thing you likely don't need to worry about: a gap year turning into a permanent college deferral. Multiple studies have shown that students who take a gap year are actually more likely to graduate college than those who don't, so don't worry that pausing college plans temporarily means you or your child will never make it to campus.
#1: May Have Limited Options
In normal times, you'd have nearly unlimited options for your gap year. Working a ski lift in Colorado? Interning in NYC? Volunteering abroad? It was all possible! However, with much of the world shut down, widespread travel restrictions, and many companies implementing hiring freezes, your options may be much more limited than you expect. Be sure to research which options are still open to you before deciding to defer college. People already realize how boring being home all day with nothing to do can get, and you don't want that to be how you spend your gap year.
#2: Won't Have the Same Experiences as Many of Your Friends
Even if the idea of going through freshman orientation online and having more Zoom classes makes you shudder, don't discount the fact that you might still end up missing them. If all your high school friends are discussing their virtual freshman years, even if it's to bemoan how awful they are, you might regret your decision to take a gap year because you can't commiserate with them. Shared experiences are important ways to connect with people, and you can still feel this regret even if you know that the decision you made to defer college was the right one for you.
#3: May Graduate Late
If you decide to defer college, you'll likely graduate late. This could make you feel behind your peers, especially once they graduate and begin working while you're still going to class. At most schools, it's possible to take extra classes and graduate in less than four years, but this will shorten your college experience and may overload your schedule. Be sure to think carefully over whether graduating later than planned will bother you now or a few years down the line.
#4: Opening Yourself Up to More Uncertainty
This is already an incredibly uncertain time, and deciding to defer college will likely only add to that. In addition to waiting to see when your college decides to reopen, you'll now need to make plans for what you'll do during your gap period. When you choose a gap year, you open up a huge number of new possibilities. Within all this choice can lie a great deal of uncertainty, which can cause anxiety and stress. Then, once you decide what to do with your gap year, your plans will likely be highly dependent on travel restrictions, stay-in-place orders, etc. If you're already maxed out on uncertainty, the effort involved in planning a gap year during a pandemic may outweigh the benefits you get from it.
#5: Loss of Academic Momentum
For the most part, studies show that students who take a gap year have high motivation when they arrive at college. However, you might find it difficult to return to an academic environment after taking a year away from the classroom. Consider whether your gap year idea could disrupt your plans for higher education and cause you to lose momentum. Would it be refreshing, or would you find it hard to return to the school environment? While you can't predict the future, it's important to consider all of these potential drawbacks as you decide whether to defer college.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking a Gap Year
Before you make a decision on whether or not to defer college, be sure to ask yourself these four questions and carefully consider your answers.
#1: What Do You Want From Your College Experience?
Obviously, much of your decision will depend on whether or not your school decides to reopen in the fall. While most colleges will wait until closer to the fall to make firm decisions, many have begun explaining different plans they may pursue. Research these and ask yourself which scenarios would be acceptable for you to begin college in the fall. If you're allowed to be on campus for classes but sports teams, large events, and other extracurriculars are cancelled, will that still work for you? If the first half of the semester is virtual but you can come to campus in November, is that OK? Think about what your wants and needs are from the college experience and what you must have to make attending college right now worth it to you. This will ensure that, when your school does announce its plans, you've already given the matter a lot of thought and can make the best decision for you.
#2: What Are Your Gap Year Options?
Normally, the world is at your fingertips when you decide to take a gap year, but the pandemic has severely curtailed many of those options. Before you make your decision, take a serious look at what options are still open to you. Be aware that many places may not be open to foreign travelers, many companies may not be hiring or even taking unpaid interns, and many volunteer programs are indefinitely shuttered. If colleges are still not reopened, it means much of the world will likely still be closed as well, so be sure your gap year plans are still viable before deciding to defer.
#3: Which Decision Is Best for Your Finances?
If you're planning on spending your gap year working at a paying job then this isn't an issue, but if your plans have high costs, such as travel, accommodation, volunteer fees, etc. you'll want to make sure a gap year is still financially feasible for you. Expected sources of income, such as parental contributions and part-time jobs, may no longer exist, and even if they do, you may decide you're better off putting the money towards college costs in case of continued future economic instability. However, on the flip side, deferring tuition payments for a year may be necessary for your situation, and many people feel like paying full tuition for online classes isn't a good use of their money. Consider all the factors before deciding.
#4: Will It Put Your Health or Another Person's Health at Risk?
If you're at high risk for COVID-19 complications or you're frequently around people who are, you may want to consider deferring college even if your school does reopen in the fall. It's easy to get sick on college campuses, where thousands of people are in close proximity to each other practically 24/7. The risk of getting the coronavirus will likely be much higher than if you remain in your parent's home. This is also true if you're generally healthy but are regularly around immuno-compromised people, such as older grandparents. Your health and the health of people you care about are critical factors to consider, and you may decide you don't want to risk being on a college campus until a vaccine is developed.
The important thing to remember is that there is no wrong decision here. Whether you decide to attend the first part of college virtually or defer a semester or a year, keep in mind that everyone will get through this with a story to tell, even if their college experience didn't begin quite the way they imagined it. When deciding what to do, remember to remain flexible and optimistic. Know that things will be up in the air for a while, but have confidence in yourself that you'll make it through this and eventually walk across the stage, diploma in hand.
Want to learn more about gap years? Our guide goes over all the key pros and cons of gap years that you should consider before committing to one.
Considering doing a volunteer abroad program during your gap year? Before you decide to join one, read our article about important things you need to know about volunteer abroad programs and why they may not be what they seem.
Want more volunteering ideas you can do near you? Check out our guide to 129 community service ideas.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.