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Should You Consider a Gap Year?

Many colleges have announced they plan to have students return to campus for fall semester; others have indicated they will be taking an online learning approach. (The Chronicle of Higher Education is regularly updating a list of approximately 950 colleges.) In some cases, schools are adjusting their break schedules to potentially lessen the spread of COVID-19 following holiday travel.

But while colleges are trying to finalize their plans, many graduates and families are weighing the options for themselves. If you planned to attend a college that is now offering only online courses, should you consider attending a different school for an on-campus experience? Or if your school is welcoming students back to campus, do you feel comfortable with that decision? With so many unknowns, some students may be considering forgoing college this fall altogether and taking what is known as a “gap year,” opting instead to begin college in the fall of 2021.

Here are some of the pros and cons of considering a gap year in 2020-2021, as outlined by our partners at Edmit:

Pros

More time to wait COVID-19 outNo one knows exactly how long this will last - and it may well change things in the fall semester. So if you wait a year, you’ll be more likely to have the traditional residential college experience. Plus, you can save money and stay closer to home in a time of uncertainty.

Expand your options: A year off allows you to get new experiences and potentially reapply to colleges that weren’t previously in reach. 

Reduce your costs: Use the time to take courses online from the college, attend a community college, or use an online provider to earn college credits that can transfer to your eventual college of choice. These are credits you won’t have to pay for later - so your overall cost of college can be reduced. Note: credit transfer policies are complex so make sure to research what will actually transfer if this is your plan.

Confirm where you really want to go: If you’re nervous about where you actually want to go, you will have time to visit campuses and make sure your top choice school is a good fit.

Develop new skills: If you have the means, this could be a wonderful time to pursue educational experiences that are not usually available in a first-year college curriculum (think of things like online bootcamps, music, writing).

Cons

Lower opportunity costLabor market economists know that during a recession or period of high unemployment, many people tend to go back to school (college or grad school). That is because their opportunity cost, or what they are missing out on by not working, is lower - it’s harder to get a high-paying job anyway, so it’s a good time to work towards a degree. The same applies today: it’s not a good time to look for a job, and we hope it will be better in four years when today’s high school seniors are graduating. So while things are bad, there is an economic argument that studying is actually the best use of your time.

Living expenses don’t go away. Just because a student is living at home doesn’t mean you won’t have any expenses. They still need to eat! And some things like health insurance can be cheaper through a school than through parents.

Losing momentum. There’s a risk that students who don’t continue to college now won’t have the initiative to do so when school is farther in the past. Make sure you assess motivations and make alternative plans that won’t derail your educational path.

Unknowns

Admissions: Many colleges allow students to defer admission a year once accepted, but the policies vary by college. Some will require you to reapply next year if you want to attend. Check with your university as this is also a policy that could be shifting given the coronavirus.

The Cost of College: The financial health of many colleges is at risk -- and the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating this risk for essentially every college and university. As a college becomes less financially stable, its pricing generally goes lower, in order to entice more students to attend and provide income. But with the state of the economy, this may not be the case. There may be less merit money available next year, for instance, if endowment investments are down and more students require financial assistance. On the other hand, there may be more aggressive “discounting” by colleges who have seen drops in enrollment and need to entice more students to attend. This calculus will vary by college and it is not clear that colleges yet know how they will respond. 

As you consider deferring college a year, walk through the implications with your family and make sure you understand the benefits and risks associated. Map out different scenarios and how they might affect your activities and choices - and get comfortable with each.

Gap Year Implications for College Admissions

Most students applying for a gap year choose to apply to college and defer admission, instead of waiting until the end of their gap year to apply. The admission committee has the final determination in granting a deferral. In most cases, admission committees would like to see a detailed plan for the gap year program and plan for a term, rather than a vague “going to backpack through Europe” or “working for a year.” If the admission committee does not approve your deferral, there is no guarantee of acceptance in future years.

Gap Year Implications for Financial Aid and Scholarships

Taking a gap year also has implications for financial aid and scholarship packages. Even if you don’t plan to accept federal aid, many institutions require submitting the FAFSA as part of the admission and scholarship evaluation process. Students who take a gap year may have to relinquish scholarships or financial aid. Each year colleges and universities are awarded a certain amount of financial aid dollars and scholarships to give away. Deferring your admission or applying to college after the gap year can change your award amount.

Gap Year Implications for FAFSA

Students who choose to take a gap year must re-submit the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) the subsequent academic year. A student who works during the gap year will have to report their income, which could increase the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and decrease the overall financial award. It’s essential to evaluate both income and other financial obligations when considering how a gap year can affect your FAFSA.

Even if there is no change in income or finances, the FAFSA award may change based on personal circumstances. Families with more than one student in college have a lower EFC per student. A student with an older sibling in college may earn a FAFSA award, but that same award may not be available if the older sibling is no longer in college when a student re-applies to the FAFSA.

Should I Take a Gap Year?

Numerous studies analyze both the benefits of taking a gap year and adverse outcomes of taking a gap year. A gap year is a personal decision that can affect financial aid and scholarship awards positively or negatively depending on your circumstances. Also, gap years have become quite common, and it’s something that most college admission committees understand and are willing to work around. If you are considering taking a gap year, present a clear plan to the university admission committees, and remember to re-submit the FAFSA.

 

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