The next normal for college students could be more distance learning.
Yet the prospect of continuing to live at home with their parents may seem like a pale second-best compared with what rising sophomores and juniors have already tasted on campus, pre-pandemic.
For incoming freshman, there's a huge financial factor.
"Families simply do not want to pay for distance or hybrid learning," said Julia Rogers, founder of Enroute Consulting, which helps with gap year decision-making.
Students are not interested in a virtual orientation, she said. The beautiful green campus is one of the biggest parts of going to college, and Rogers says student interest is rising because of the possibility of schools wavering on fall plans.
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Best not to panic, says Jordan Lee, founder and CEO of CollegeBacker, a mobile college savings app. "It used to be the norm in many European countries to take a year off before starting a formal university education," he said.
Consider if a gap year could be productive, Lee says. What are the finances like? Avoid making a rash decision based solely on the possibility that some of the year could be distance learning.
A year off can help a student focus and appreciate the value of a college education, says Lee.
Another plus: Taking a gap year lets you turn uncertainty into opportunity. Make your first stop the Gap Year Association, which has advice, resources, links to other programs and information on deferrals.
Here are five opportunities for prospective students to consider when weighing whether to take a gap year.
The biggest gap year provider is the Corporation for National and Community Service, Rogers says. This is the federal agency that leads service, volunteering and grant-making in the U.S. They run several programs, including AmeriCorps, for 18- to 26-year-olds.
Best of all, it's a free gap year, since room, board, meals and transportation are given in exchange when you commit for 10 months to 12 months.
Projects range from rebuilding trails in national parks, responding to natural disasters or working as mentors for disadvantaged youths. After your service is completed, you receive an education award (about $6,000) to use toward student loans or tuition.
You can study another language even if your gap year is spent in the U.S.
You can connect with people anywhere in the world through programs like Tandem. They even have local communities in Chicago, Houston and New York, among others. Online partners can share a meal over the internet, so you're not just learning a language by rote.
Conversation Exchange matches people locally to be language partners.
The flip side of a gap year may be financial considerations. "If a student got a very attractive financial package, that's a good reason to continue on this fall," Rogers said.
Taking a gap year could mean rolling the dice and walking away from an offer you might not get when you reapply. Students who do a gap year may have to relinquish scholarships or financial aid.
Get out the vote, work on a campaign or organize around an issue — the arts, education, youth, health, the environment, economic security — that interests you.
The gap year is supposed to be a deliberate time to practice personal, professional and practical growth, says Rogers.
Students considering a specific industry might try job shadowing to see if that's in fact a good fit. Rogers knows a pre-med student who will be working as a contact tracer during a gap year.
If you're interested in service consider a paid, full-time year of service in your choice of area and interest, such as animals, aging, youth or disability, among others.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.