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What Colleges Are—and Aren’t—Saying About Gap Years

A female pulling her yellow rolling suitcase across a town square in a foreign city.

By and large, online learning has not proven popular among college students. When classes were abruptly moved online and students suspended from campus, many expressed frustration and disappointment, even to the point of legal action. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 risk factors that pushed colleges online have not fully abated and may not do so before September.

Colleges are trying to plan for next fall, but uncertainty still reigns supreme. As a result, many students who are either finishing high school or are still in college are fundamentally rethinking their plans. A national survey led by the American Council on Education found that nearly one in five students are unsure about re-enrolling or have decided not to attend college in the fall, preferring instead to wait another year for things to settle down. Many graduating high school seniors are considering deferring their college enrollment to pursue a gap year in hopes that in-person learning will resume in Fall 2021.

What Colleges Are Saying About Gap Years

From the students’ perspectives, deferring is a sensible plan. Even in normal times, there are a lot of advantages to taking a gap year; many high school students find it an invaluable time to explore the world and themselves, taking on service projects and traveling domestically and internationally, free from the pressure of applying to or keeping up with college.

Understandably, however, colleges are worried about this possible trend. Another recent survey found that a whopping 96% of college presidents are concerned about fall enrollment numbers. Nevertheless, most schools are still projecting the idea that gap years have the same value they’ve always had and do not want to stand in the way of students with a legitimate plan.

In general, colleges are saying the same basic things about gap years:

It’s a great idea. Many admissions websites express general support of gap years, saying that taking some time off between high school and college can give students time to explore, reflect, and grow outside of high-pressure educational and social environments. Harvard University says that the 80-110 students who defer every year have a “uniformly positive” experience.

But commit first. At the same time, colleges emphasize that the benefits of a gap year are exactly that—a gap, meaning there’s something on the other side. What colleges are suggesting is actually deferred enrollment, meaning that students commit to attending the school and then indicate that they plan to enroll a year later, after taking some time.

Also, you need to have a plan. Most importantly for students considering taking a gap year right now, many colleges are laying out some basic conditions for allowing students to do so. These requirements tend to be flexible, anything from a service project to military service to travel, but without some kind of plan, colleges are likely to reject your petition to defer.

And you can’t take college courses. The possibility of online learning has led some to wonder if they could just take online classes somewhere else, for a lot less money, during a gap year. As it turns out, colleges have thought of this, and nearly all of them prohibit students from taking college classes or enrolling in another degree program during their gap year.

In short, in public, schools are saying that their current policies will not change and that they will not restrict the number of deferred enrollments or leaves of absence. Most have not even updated their websites about gap years to include any mention of COVID-19.

What Colleges Aren’t Saying About Gap Years

At the same time, by not specifically addressing the interest in gap years as a direct result of COVID-19, colleges are eliding some important considerations. For instance, almost all colleges are avoiding addressing the following questions:

How many deferrals they’re going to grant. While almost no colleges have announced explicit limits on gap years, some enrollment officers are expressing private concerns that if many more students than usual request to defer, they may need to limit how many deferrals they grant. Because many schools have pushed back both their deposit deadlines and their deadlines to request a deferral, it’s too early to know whether they will have to start saying no.

How students should take a gap year when the whole world is closed down. Right now, many college enrollment officers are banking on the idea that the most common activities for which they grant deferrals—long-term service projects, international travel, and paid work—will not be possible next year anyway. Almost none have altered their deferral policies to be more flexible to this need, which may ultimately leave students with no choice but to enroll.

How this will affect admission for next year’s applicants. Finally, there’s a concern among some in the know that a much larger number of deferrals this year will mean less space on campus in Fall 2021, making the upcoming application cycle even more competitive than usual. Others argue that plummeting numbers of international applicants will offset this trend. Ultimately, there’s no way to know until we see actual numbers.

Final Thoughts

What does this mean for you? If you’re weighing whether to defer or take a leave of absence next year from college, make sure you’ve accepted at your first choice, that you know when the deadline to apply for a deferral is, and start thinking about what you would do if you took a gap year. What kinds of feasible activities would you genuinely enjoy doing during this time?

If you’re still in high school, you likely already know that this upcoming application cycle is already a mess. The best thing you can do is focus on yourself. Don’t stress about what you can’t control; instead, work on getting the most out of your high school experience and preparing to craft the strongest possible applications to your top schools.

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