Personal Finance

Incoming college students consider taking a gap year instead of school during Covid-19

Key Points
  • With campuses closed indefinitely, many college-bound seniors are considering taking a gap year.
  • While some schools typically encourage the time off, others may be less willing to grant a deferral because of coronavirus.

For high school seniors, this may be the year to take some time off.

"You always hear people say your friends from college are the ones you have for life — I don't want to miss out on that," said Alina Ikhmayes, 18.

If the college campuses are still closed come the fall, Ikhmayes said she will defer her acceptance to New York University.

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"Almost none of my students who were accepted are going to college this year," said Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, a California-based tutoring, test-prep and college admissions firm. "Many of them will take a gap year."

"Everyone is freaking out a little bit," added Christopher Rim, president and CEO of Command Education in New York.

"Typically, only two to three students want to take a gap year; this year, it's about 75%," he said of the college-bound students and families he works with.

It's understandable that so many high school seniors are considering putting college on hold, given the circumstances.

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Amid the coronavirus crisis, schools across the country are closed indefinitely and many incoming freshmen, like Ikhmayes, are reluctant to start college with online learning.

"Why pay full tuition to sit at home and watch videos?" asked Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com.

Without the hallmarks of college, such as football games, tailgates and Greek life, "a lot of people don't want to go to a freshman year that is less than the freshman experience," Koh said.

To that end, a gap year could be a wise way to weather the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming academic year. But it's not a cure-all.

What is a gap year?

For starters, a gap year requires planning and, in many cases, approval.

The purpose is to allow students both a break from the often intense academic pressure leading up to college and an in-depth opportunity to pursue a special project or other area of interest.

"A gap year is not a quick fix — it truly has its benefits for students and schools," said Robert Franek, editor in chief of The Princeton Review and author of "The Best 385 Colleges."

The break between high school and college typically includes international travel, research or volunteering before continuing studies. It could also be a way to work for a year to save up more money to pay for college.

About 40,000 high school seniors choose to take a year off before beginning their freshman year in college, according to the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that accredits gap year programs.

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"Colleges grant deferral for a gap year for students who want to gain fluency in a language, practice a musical instrument or pursue a community service project or volunteer effort," said Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association.

Some popular choices within the U.S. include AmeriCorps, Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, he added.

The group said that the number of students opting to take a gap year is up 9% from the year before but could spike in the year ahead.

Students can also circumvent the process of applying for a gap year through the school of their choice and instead reapply to college the following year rather than defer.

Is a gap year a good idea now? 

Many of these opportunities, particularly those centered on traveling or work, are also impacted by the spread of the coronavirus.

"I'm a huge advocate of gap years, but gap year programs are going to be affected by Covid-19," said Franek. "All of the face-to-face exchanges could be off the table — that's really the value of a gap year."

Knight said that while he's "thrilled" more students are considering the option, "the same circumstances that would cause schools to remain closed also apply to gap year programs."

"If you are looking at a gap year to have some great benefits, staying at home wouldn't be the same," he said.

In addition, while some schools encourage the time off, others may disallow gap years altogether, particularly now.

The No. 1 way universities need to cut the bleeding is to ban gap years.
Allen Koh
CEO of Cardinal Education

Faced with the possibility of a significant drop in fall enrollments, "the No. 1 way universities need to cut the bleeding is to ban gap years," Koh said.

Koh advises rising freshmen to ask their prospective school's admissions office directly about its deferral policy.

There is also the question of financial aid. Students who defer will have to reapply for aid the following year, according to Kantrowitz. "The offer of admission can be deferred, if approved by the college, but not the offer of financial aid," he said. 

On the upside, a gap year could be the perfect antidote for students who need a break from the stress of school or want to provide a service as the economy craters. 

"We want to push more intention behind the outcome," Knight said.

Gap Year Association research found that 90% of students who take a structured gap year return to school within a year, and are more likely to graduate on time and with a higher grade-point average.

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