May 9, 2020 - Economy & Business

The new (unplanned) gap year

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.

Go deeper

Primary elections test impact of protests, coronavirus on voting

Election official at a polling place at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the midst of a global pandemic and national protests over the death of George Floyd, eight states and the District of Columbia held primary elections on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, needs to win 425 of the 479 delegates up for grabs in order to officially clinch the nomination. There are a number of key down-ballot races throughout the country as well, including a primary in Iowa that could determine the fate of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Iowa Rep. Steve King defeated in GOP primary

Rep. Steve King. Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

State Sen. Randy Feenstra defeated incumbent Rep. Steve King in Tuesday's Republican primary for Iowa's 4th congressional district, according to the Cook Political Report.

Why it matters: King's history of racist remarks has made him one of the most controversial politicians in the country and a pariah within the Republican Party.

Updates: George Floyd protests continue past curfews

Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators outside of the White House on Monday. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

Protests over the death of George Floyd and other police-related killings of black people continued Tuesday across the U.S. for the eighth consecutive day — prompting a federal response from the National Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

The latest: Protesters were still out en masse even as curfews set in in New York City and Washington, D.C. Large crowds kneeled at Arizona's state capitol nearly an hour before the statewide 8 p.m. curfew, and a peaceful march dispersed in Chicago ahead of the city's 9 p.m. curfew.