COVID-19 Drives New Interest in Deferring College, Gap Year Consultant Says

Students say the uncertainty around traditional campus life in the fall has them considering alternatives, and a Vermont consultant says, "We are seeing a huge uptick in interest" in gap years

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Colleges and universities are reporting challenges to how they are planning for the fall semester, given all the unknowns around the new coronavirus.

The University of Vermont said earlier this month it will welcome students back to campus in the fall, but noted enrollment levels are still up in the air.

Among the reasons UVM cited for why students may decide to not attend classes on campus in the fall is the fact some are considering taking gap years to wait and instead attend college after the pandemic has passed.

Gap years are intentional periods of time between high school and college.

“I can’t tell you how many times my friends have been like, ‘Sami, this is the perfect year to take a gap year,’” recalled Sami King, who is graduating from the Derryfield School in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Julia Rogers, a gap year advisor who runs EnRoute Consulting from Stowe, Vermont, said an estimated 40,000 U.S. students take gap years in a typical year to explore personal or professional goals.

Rogers said it’s too early to tell how many students will take a gap year this year, but expects the number will increase markedly.

“We are seeing a huge uptick in interest,” Rogers said, noting web searches are way up and virtual info sessions she has hosted on gap years have seen strong attendance in recent weeks.

Colleges and universities are planning for the fall semester as the country’s top infectious disease doctor tells Congress there likely won't be a vaccine in time for when the students return.

The spike in interest is apparently driven by uncertainty around how colleges and universities will look and feel in the fall as they work to avoid another round of COVID-19 infections, Rogers said.

Ben Wetzell, who is graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont, told NECN & NBC10 Boston that he is deferring his start at Northeastern University. Instead of starting there this fall, Wetzell is planning to do service learning for now, explaining he doesn’t want to deal with physically distant lectures, dining halls and dorms.

“I hadn’t even really considered a gap year until this pandemic,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are not doing a gap year, but a lot of friends considering it.”

Talia Frankel, who will soon graduate from Harwood Union High School in Moretown, Vermont, said she is still on the fence.

Frankel would like to start at the University of Denver this fall, but the virus has her wondering if she should wait a year.

“I’m just trying to figure out what I can do that will be the best for me next year, I think,” Frankel said.

Non-essential retail stores were allowed to reopen Monday in Vermont with limitations.

Rogers said decisions in some families could come down to the wire.

“We’ve heard reports of students putting down deposits at multiple colleges because they’re trying to hedge their bets against which one might open in the fall,” Rogers said.

Rogers said effective gap years are aimed at embracing personal interests in nontraditional settings, maybe by focusing on language study, volunteering or travel.

However, booking trips could also cause anxiety during the pandemic, Rogers acknowledged, so she is recommending that any student who wants to travel do so next spring.

Finding activities closer to home for this fall would be better for anyone taking a gap year, Rogers advised.

Sami King’s gap year plans in South America had to be shelved this fall, she said, so she’s now looking in the U.S. to find other ways to grow before starting at the College of Charleston in 2021.

“I want to explore different career paths that I could take,” King said.

There’s a certain kind of student Rogers advises to not take a gap year: someone who got a good financial aid package. Rogers said those students may not want to roll the dice on aid packages being there next year.

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