In this weird COVID-19 world birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations are being celebrated in completely different ways. Hopefully things will get back to normal soon but activities expected to start up in the fall, like going back to school, are going to have a different look to them. Some changes, like potentially lower student-to-teacher ratios at elementary and middle schools, might actually have some positive attributes to them but other changes are going to be for the worse.
High school seniors starting college via on-line classes are one group that will be missing out on the traditional college freshman experience. Many colleges and universities across the country are considering how they will offer classes for the fall academic term; they seem to be deciding among either traditional in-person lectures, online versions of a course, or some combination of the two. Only a small number of colleges have decided what they will do, despite growing anxiety from students and families over how these decisions will affect them and their children’s college experience. Students and families have a lot of questions on how the fall semester will look and not a lot of answers have been provided to-date.
For the majority of incoming freshmen, if they end up attending a college that decides to do an online fall semester then they will miss out on much of the bonding and growing that many of us experienced during our first year of college. Living on your own, managing your own schedule, and juggling new experiences with college courses will not be part of their freshman experience. Instead, they will be taking classes via Zoom in their bedroom.
Instead of accepting a watered down freshman experience there is an option for your child to delay his/her college experience until things get back to normal. Students can usually opt to defer their enrollment for a year (or even two at some schools) after they have been accepted. The one year deferral is often referred to as a gap year. This is the time your child should look into the option and consider choosing to wait a year before starting his/her college experience.
In normal years a high school senior may decide to defer enrollment for any number of reasons, including traveling or studying abroad, working to earn money to pay for tuition, or taking a year to do something charitable or work on a sport. This year there are other more important reasons to consider:
Why it Might be Worth it to Take a Gap Year in 2020
- Allows you and your child to make the correct decision – Some recent articles have suggested that high school freshman are choosing to go to a local college due to the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 instead of choosing to attend their top pick. I am all for a person picking the right college to attend, see here, but choosing to stay close to home for the next four years due to a pandemic that should be resolved within the next 12-18 months may not be a good decision. Taking a year off by deferring admission will let the air clear and things get back to normal – most seniors should be basing their college choice on a normal environment and not a pandemic which, as bad as it is, will ease in the coming months.
- Ensures your child will have a more typical freshman experience – Having a roommate, bonding with others from your incoming class, and just learning how to manage your schedule during the first year of college is as valuable as most freshman courses. Your child will miss out on many of these experiences if he/she takes her first semester of college through online courses in her bedroom. Also, many professors do not know how to teach as effectively using Zoom or whatever online software they use. Trust me, I taught this semester using online tools, I tried my best, but it was not the same. If your child defers a year then hopefully his/her freshman experience can be more typical and rewarding.
- Hits the pause button on college expenses for you and your child – With 30 million unemployed and that number likely to rise during the next few quarters, deferring by a year would postpone the big expenses of college while your financial situation stabilizes. Deferring a year will allow your investments that were going to pay for your kid’s college to stabilize, allow you to save a little more money for those extra college expenses, or stabilize your income if you have lost your job during this time. If your kid is taking out student loans he/she should get optimal value for something he/she is going into debt for and therefore deferral also makes sense.
- Gives your child more time to understand what he/she wants to focus on in college – Another year of maturity and reflection on how to spend one’s time in college is not a bad thing. I took several years off between college and law school to work and because of this extra time and experience I knew what area of law I wanted to focus when I entered law school. It helped me optimize my experience and my choices while at school. Used wisely, another year can give your student a chance to better understand how he wants spend his time on campus and in the classroom.
The risks to taking a Gap Year in 2020
There are risks to hitting the pause button and some of those risks are specific to the environment we find ourselves in right now. First and foremost, your child may lose motivation during a COVID-19 gap year if the year is spent being unproductive at home. Finding meaningful work or other opportunities might be more challenging than normal. The risk of family tension is also higher with stay-at-home in place and the chances to follow a productive routine more limited. However, this frustration may be worse for your child if he is starting his college experience at home. Another risk is if your child does not get into his college of choice and tries again next year – in this COVID-19 world your child may not be able to get the experiences he/she would otherwise get and therefore he/she might look less attractive to schools after a year lacking experiences of traveling, doing charitable work, interning, etc.
If Your Child Takes a Gap Year Have a Plan to Address Key Areas
If your child likes the idea of a gap year then the family should sit down and discuss a plan that covers the following:
- Making sure your child stays productive during the gap year.
- Building experience and maturity in your child during the gap year.
- Making the most of the gap year in terms of finances.
My wife and I come from a family that pushed getting through college in four years or less. There was no five years of college. In fact my wife graduated in three years. That being said, my four years made me a different person because I was on my own, I lived in a dorm with hundreds of other young adults, and I had to ensure my own success. None of this would have happened with online classes while I lived at home. Taking a year off will not be a wasted year if you make a plan to be purposeful during your year off and you understand the gap year is intended to make the start of your college experience more rewarding during the fall of 2021.