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

Updated Aug 25, 2020 - Axios Events

Watch: The future of employability in North Carolina

RNC week: On Tuesday, August 25 Axios Cities author Kim Hart and Axios politics and White House editor Margaret Talev hosted a conversation on North Carolina's broadband access and economic recovery amid the coronavirus, featuring Reenie Askew, Charlotte's chief information officer, and Thomas Parrish, North Carolina's acting secretary and state chief information officer.

Thomas Parrish discussed bridging the digital divide in North Carolina, focusing on current investments in Wi-fi hotspots. The state is allocating $30 million to distribute 100k hotspots with continuous high speed and unlimited data for all students in the state.

  • On investing in the future of connectivity: "If you look at Europe...these countries are investing billions of dollars in their infrastructure to make sure people are connected...I think what we're finally seeing in the United States and in North Carolina is that we need to make that investment, because if we're connected, that means we're ready for tomorrow."
  • On internet access in rural communities: "We're trying to leverage as much of the existing infrastructure as we can...working with local businesses, working with nonprofits, working with other departments like our Parks get that connectivity out to our rural communities."

Reenie Askew focused on how internet connectivity is critical for education and workforce development, highlighting a city government partnership with school districts, nearby community colleges and other businesses to provide 15 spaces for public WiFi.

  • On the importance of providing free public Wi-fi: "If you have to make a decision between taking care of your expenses and food, education, and Internet — Internet would not be at the top of the list."
  • On the connection between accessible Internet and education: "The educational divide increases if we don't have the ability for everyone to be able to not just connect, but do it effectively from home. And so if we're unable to do that, then students who don't have access fall further behind and that we don't need to have."

Thank you Microsoft for sponsoring this event.

Court deems Virginia school board's transgender bathroom ban unconstitutional

Gavin Grimm attends 2019 DoSomething Gala in New York City. Photo: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a Virginia school board's transgender bathroom ban is unconstitutional — a win for transgender rights proponents, AP reports.

Context: Gavin Grimm sued Gloucester County School Board after he was told to use private restrooms or bathrooms that did not match his gender identity while at school.

Updated Oct 16, 2020 - Health

U.S. coronavirus updates

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Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Note: Does not include probable deaths from New York City; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. surpassed 8 million coronavirus cases on Friday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: Coronavirus infections jumped by almost 17% over the past week as the number of new cases across the country increased in 38 states and Washington, D.C., according to a seven-day average tracked by Axios.