The Covid-19 pandemic was incredibly challenging for college students and when schools shut down and went to remote classes, many students chose to take time off — a gap year or even a gap semester — instead.
Postsecondary enrollments dropped 2.5% in the fall of 2020, nearly twice the rate of decline from a year earlier, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's December 2020 report. The NSCRC said the primary driver of that decline was a 3.6% drop in undergraduate enrollment.
Many students could no longer afford to enroll. Others didn't want a diminished college experience as coronavirus forced most universities online and internships, jobs and study abroad opportunities were canceled. Others were simply burned out from the stress of the pandemic.
"My family was in a credit crisis … so there were a lot of questions about our livelihood, what's going to happen to my grandparents [in China]. So there's a lot of stress in the air," said Lily Liu, an international student from China in the Stanford University Class of 2022 (formerly '21). "As the only child in an immigrant family, I think it was really important for me to be able to dedicate my full attention to my family," Liu said.
Nicolas Montoya, a student in the Harvard College Class of 2024 (formerly '23), said he found it hard to adjust when campus was closed and students were sent home.
"I chose to take a gap year mainly because I didn't have the best experience with the spring semester of 2020, when we decided to go virtual. Being [a] first-gen [college student], it was really hard to find work-life balance and find a place to study at home," said Montoya.
Marco Balestri, an American History major at Columbia University, had been studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and was there for less than three weeks when the pandemic hit and all students were sent home.
"I had not started the semester there and decided to withdraw from school for the semester just because I really could not think of the prospect of doing five months of online school," Balestri said.
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Gap years are common as some high school students take a year off to travel or volunteer before college. But that increased dramatically with the pandemic as many incoming freshmen, when faced with the prospect of starting their college life online, opted to take time off instead. Freshman enrollment in college fell 13.1% in the fall of 2020, compared with a drop of just 1.4% in the fall of 2019, according to the NSCRC.
Some colleges, like Princeton, Harvard, and Tufts University actually encouraged incoming freshman to consider deferring those admission offers and take a gap year before beginning college. Around 340 Harvard students, or 20% of the incoming freshman class, opted to defer enrollment in fall 2020 – that's more than double the 90 to 130 students they have defer in a typical year.
Other campuses saw similar jumps in both incoming and current students taking time off. But gap years during the pandemic were not the same: With borders closed and lockdown orders imposed because of the global spread of Covid-19, gap year students had to find new ways to gain experience and make an impact during 2020.
"I spent my entire year at home. It was kind of a no-brainer because most of the activities I engaged with were unpaid," said Liu, who just returned to Stanford recently.
Liu was initially supposed to study abroad to Paris, but instead, spent her year at home working on her senior thesis, completing a remote internship, writing music, and working on two different research projects with post-doctoral scholars — one of which investigated the use of technology by local police and was published during the height of the George Floyd movement last summer.
Montoya worked full-time as a Covid-19 case investigator and volunteered with an education nonprofit focused on increasing the graduation rate for Hispanic high school students.
"Both of my opportunities are completely remote, so I just do them from my childhood bedroom," he explained.
Balestri landed two back-to-back field organizer jobs for Democratic Senate campaigns in Maine and Georgia during the 2020 election.
"Going into the summer, I realized that I was very much interested in taking that fall semester off. I hadn't committed fully, but I had known I would only do it if I got a full-time position on a campaign," Balestri said. "And for me, I had always known campaigns are one of the best ways for young people, especially college students, to break into politics and government and get a lot of hands-on experience in leadership that you can't get from internships with major corporations, Congress, or your state legislature."
For some students, taking a gap year or semester gave them time to think about what they really wanted to do with their futures.
"When I was enrolled, I was just kind of going through the motions of like, 'I should be taking this class to be on track or I should be doing that,'" Montoya said. I was actually pre-med when I was enrolled, and now I don't think I'm pre-med anymore. And this is actually something I've determined doing this gap year, working in health care, and just seeing what it really takes to be a doctor and maybe that isn't for me."
It also gave students chances to network and explore fields they're interest in.
When I'm moving 200 mph, it's impossible for me to take a step back and think about things," said Liu. "This year, because of the free time, I was able to talk to professionals and people whose work I really admire and from there I decided I want to do a master's [degree] in sustainability. That was not my intention at all before."
Balestri said his high-stakes and hands-on work in politics actually had an impact on his studies.
"It's really made me want to dive deeper into the studies I'm working on," Balestri said. "I'm currently writing a thesis on the origins of the voter-registration system in New York State in the early 1900s — so much of that was influenced by my experience working with voter registration on these campaigns."
The coronavirus pandemic hit Black and Hispanic families harder and that was reflected on college campuses: The number of Black and Hispanic students taking leaves of absence during the spring semester, when the pandemic first hit, increased by 206% and 287%, respectively, compared to a 70% increase for white students and 59% for Asian students, according to a report from the NSCRC.
For some students who decide to take time off because of financial or other hardships, there is a very real concern they may not return to college.
"Research has shown, for Latinx students in particular, the longer they take gap years, the less likely it is that they are going to return back to campus. So that is something to be very cognizant of, that institutions should be aware of how to support students if they do choose to take a gap year— whether it is by force or voluntarily," said Edgar Lopez, a PhD candidate in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California.
Those interruptions and delays have Lopez and other higher education experts worried that the pandemic will delay college graduation for students of color and exacerbate existing inequalities in higher education.
If a student doesn't complete their college degree, it can have a serious ripple effect on the rest of their life — it will be tougher to get a job and they will make less money. The median weekly earnings for someone with some college but no degree is $415 less than that of someone with a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That money compounds when you consider earning, saving and investing.
So, whether a student chooses to take time off or is forced to for financial or other reasons, experts say it's crucial that they do so with a serious intent to return to campus the next semester or next year.
CNBC's "College Voices" is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Christian Rodriguez is a student in the Columbia University Class of 2022, majoring in Latin American and Iberian cultures and European history, politics, and society. He was a spring 2021 intern with CNBC's assignment desk and is currently a summer analyst at Goldman Sachs.The series is edited by Cindy Perman.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.