May 9, 2020 - Economy

The new (unplanned) gap year

Illustration of a graduation cap surrounded by abstract colors and shapes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

College students are rethinking their next year of school, especially if their fall semester looks to be 15 weeks of online classes without dorms, dining halls or classmates.

The big picture: Millions of college students may suddenly find themselves in a gap year, traditionally taken between high school and college to travel or to work for internships, which are likely out of the question during an ongoing pandemic.

By the numbers: More than a quarter of college students are questioning whether to return to their current college or university in the fall due to uncertainty around plans to reopen, according to a survey by Top Hat of 3,086 North American students.

  • 35% of prospective college students said they’re planning to take a gap year, per a separate survey of 487 students conducted by higher-education consulting firm the Art & Science Group. Another 35% said they’ll enroll part time.

What to watch: Colleges are still trying to figure out what enrollment will look like in the fall. And experts are looking at past recessions for clues on what higher education will have to combat in years to come.

  • "This not like any other recession," Sandy Baum, an economist who specializes in higher education finance, tells Axios. "Even the wealthiest colleges are bleeding money not knowing how they’re going to manage."

The coronavirus could lead to dramatic declines in enrollment from several demographics:

  • International student enrollment dropped 2.5% during the SARS epidemic in 2003. Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks higher ed enrollment, predicts COVID-19 could easily be four times that.
  • Colleges could take a hit with out-of-state students who may be more comfortable switching to a community college for their first year.
  • High school graduates who have families with layoffs may go part time to contribute a paycheck.
  • Middle class students who can afford a year off from college may defer their acceptance letters.

Yes, but: "[Students are] going to realize they have nothing to do for their gap year and they’re probably not going to get a job either," Baum says, adding many parents are likely to tell their young adult to persevere online for their first year if needed.

  • Plus, most universities likely can't accept a large amount of freshman next year, from both classes of 2020 and 2021.

The bottom line: Like so much of the pandemic fallout, wealthy and lower-income people will be disproportionately affected.

  • Wealthy students can more easily afford a year either not in school or working. For those less fortunate, the unplanned delay can be ruinous.
  • "What we saw in 2008 was that students who could afford it, particularly those going to private nonprofit colleges, they actually did fine," Shapiro tells Axios.
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