As the coronavirus crisis forces schools to operate remotely, a growing number of would-be college students are opting out entirely.
Such a move can have a big impact on future earnings.
Overall, undergraduate enrollment fell 4% this year, according to data from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, with incoming freshmen accounting for the biggest drop, sinking 13% from last fall.
Many said distance learning was simply not worth the cost — causing some to rethink their plans altogether.
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While some deferred college, other undergraduates decided to take a break from their studies, including those about to graduate.
Due to the pandemic, 13% of students delayed graduation last spring, according to one study of 1,500 students at Arizona State University, one of the country's largest public colleges.
Yet, the choice to un-enroll was not made across the board. Lower-income students were 55% more likely than their higher-income peers to delay graduation because of Covid-19, the study found.
In ordinary years, taking a break before or even during college might include travel, work, research or volunteering. Some popular choices within the U.S. include AmeriCorps, Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS.
Historically, formal gap years were designed to allow students both a reprieve from the intense academic pressure leading up to college and an in-depth opportunity to pursue a special project or other area of interest.
But as tuition costs soar, more students are choosing to delay college enrollment because of financial concerns, even before the pandemic put a stranglehold on college affordability.
The traditional gap year model is increasingly rare, said Yuxin Lin, a research associate at the Community College Research Center.
"For most of the students that delay college enrollment, it is not because they have a great opportunity," she said. "They delay enrollment because they need money and cannot afford college."
At the same time, 4 in 10 students lost a job, internship, or job offer while the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds nearly doubled in the last year.
"If you are a current undergrad the issue is what is your next best alternative," said Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, a California-based tutoring, test-prep and college admissions firm.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, "the world is frozen," Koh said. "If you are going to take a gap year to just stay at home, it may not be worth it."
For students who plan to reapply to college a year from now, "you can't just show up with the same resume you had in high school," Koh added. "You need to show accomplishments; the standards actually rise quite a bit."
Now, without job prospects or travel opportunities, postponing a higher education can come at a financial cost as well as an academic one.
Historically, only 13% of college dropouts return within five years, a separate National Student Clearinghouse report found, and even fewer graduate.
"Generally, for low- and middle-class students, once they get off the education trajectory, it's over," Koh said.
Already, 3 in 10 students said they expect to earn less when they're 35 because of the pandemic.
Once they get off the education trajectory, it's over.Allen KohCEO of Cardinal Education
In one recent study, researchers compared the earnings of college graduates and high school graduates to estimate the lost savings by taking a year off from college.
Finishing college a year late can cost graduates up to $17,300 in savings, accounting for the difference in earnings for just that 12-month period, the report by Student Loan Hero found.
Over a lifetime, this earnings gap increases substantially.
The total earnings penalty experienced by delayers compared with on-time enrollees is at least $41,000 in the first 13 years after high school graduation, according to a report by the Community College Research Center.
The lifetime penalty is at least three times higher, said Lin, who authored the report.
Looking back, "we will see a spike in the number of students who delayed college," she said, "and we will probably see this cohort of students experience a very deep and very large earnings loss."
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