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Michael Swartz / May 22, 2020

Students Exploring the 'Gap Year'

Many are graduating high school and not planning to attend college just yet.

In recent decades, American society has emphasized obtaining a college education by whatever means necessary. While most students take the traditional route of graduating high school in the spring and heading off to State U the next fall, many colleges cater to working adults by offering online classes and other non-traditional degree programs. Either way, it’s increasingly “what you do.”

Just three months ago, the Class of 2020 was poised to follow that same path. And then the Wuhan coronavirus utterly upended their lives.

While many graduating seniors are still assessing their situation, those who had already enrolled and were enjoying the college experience suddenly found themselves off campus and online, trying to get through a semester via virtual classes. While most persevered, others grew frustrated with the lack of interaction and direct instruction and withdrew from school.

Now, with the coming fall semester in doubt thanks to the pandemic, a growing number of freshmen-to-be are considering delaying their college entry by a year. Rich Cooper, a California-based college counselor, told ABC News that he’s telling all his students to take a “gap year” until order is restored.

Students agree, too. “I think if my parents were to have to pay the same tuition for online classes, I honestly think I would take a gap year,” explained one graduating senior from Illinois. However, if her chosen university indeed decides to cancel on-campus classes, she might find her options limited.

In this difficult job market, only a lucky few are likely to find a job and work while they wait. Others may join their peers in taking classes toward an associate’s degree at a local community college, saving tuition fees and then transferring those credits to a four-year institution. (In some localities, education at a community college is tuition-free for recently graduated seniors, as local or state government covers the remaining cost after accounting for financial aid.) Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t always work for students who wish to attend “elite” schools, which are often less accommodating of requests for deferral.

Moreover, their “gap” may become a chasm when compared to those friends and siblings who matriculated in the BC (Before Coronavirus) era. “A student who defers a year is trading one year of postcollege earning potential for whatever income or experience they would be able to have in the year ahead,” explains Greg Orwig, the vice president for admissions and financial aid at Whitworth University. “And that should be a trade-off considered with great care.”

The uncertainty doesn’t just affect students. College administrators who would normally be planning how to feed, house, and accommodate an enthusiastic freshman class now face the very real possibility of losing those students. “Colleges, especially private colleges that cost in the $60,000-70,000 a year range, rely heavily on the remaining quarter of students who can afford to pay the sticker price,” writes National Review’s Dan McLaughlin. He then asks a burning question: “What happens if the richest students bail out? The entire economic model of campuses could be undermined, especially if nobody at all is paying room and board and there is no revenue to be had from athletic programs, while colleges are still paying for their sprawling real estate and the extensive bureaucratic overhead that supports modern campus life.”

There are also those who hope the gap-year phenomenon leads to deeper reform on campus. But the Manhattan Institute’s Stephen Eide throws cold water on that theory by explaining how ingrained the awarding of college degrees is as a job-market separator. Then there are the benefits of college social life on future opportunity. Eide also points out that the schools most hurt by coronavirus are the colleges we want to keep: the small, generally Christian-based colleges that don’t have the billion-dollar endowments of Ivy League institutions.

Perhaps a “gap year” will also open the eyes of many in the Class of 2020 to a keen observation by “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe: “Two weeks ago, I watched on YouTube a lecture from MIT for free — the same lecture that would have cost X thousands of dollars, right? So, I think when the dust settles, higher education is going to be revealed for the luxury brand that it truly is, and when you take away all of the stuff that has nothing to do with learning or connecting, you’re gonna be left with a breathtakingly overpriced product.”

Online classes aren’t the answer for everyone, of course. But broadening one’s horizons and listening to more traditional viewpoints doesn’t cost the student a dime (as Rowe mentioned), and this can impart wisdom that no ivory tower professor (or, more likely, a graduate assistant instructor) can match. If you’re in the graduating Class of 2020 and wish to take the gap year, here’s hoping you’re able to fill it with truly useful knowledge for the life ahead of you.

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