It is no secret that the world looks drastically different than it did only a couple of months ago. Our day-to-day lives have been uprooted and replaced with social distancing and public safety recommendations. The pandemic has altered more than just our daily lives. For many graduating seniors, these past few months have caused students to reconsider the plans they had made for the fall, primarily their decision to be on-campus come August.
Due to the new, ever-evolving ‘normal’, many are looking into deferring their enrollment and considering taking a gap year. Though these options may seem like no-brainers—because who wants to exchange their first semester of college for an at-home, online experience—college leadership across the nation is warning incoming freshmen to proceed with caution.
According to an article by US News, the National Center for Education Statistics has found that high school graduates who delay college enrollment by a year tend to earn their degree at a lower rate than those students who enroll immediately. Additionally, many colleges have strict policies surrounding the deferment process, which if not properly researched could to lead well-intentioned students losing their spot or having to re-apply next year.
We spoke with experts in the college gap year process and wanted to share with you some of their important tips to consider when contemplating deferment. In light of the current challenges COVID-19 has presented, it is wise to reflect upon your motivations for attending college in the first place. Taking time to remember why you have decided to pursue your dreams through earning a degree may shed light on the path forward that is right for you.
Gap Year Programs—Reimagined
Traditional gap year programs, like Rustic Pathways or Verto Education, offer students the opportunity to study abroad for a semester or full year prior to starting their freshman year of college. Though traveling may sound appealing after spending months cooped up at home, understand that international travel is very unlikely at this time and presents many challenges that would typically not occur in years past.
Traveling abroad, even to remote areas, is dangerous considering how quickly governments have chosen to restrict travel in and out of their country in response to COVID-19. This could leave students stuck in foreign, unfamiliar places, with limited options to return home. The reality is that COVID-19 has changed the international travel experience, replacing what used to be an incredible opportunity for students with a nightmare of ‘what-if’ scenarios.
As mentioned before, Verto Education offers students the unique experience to begin their college careers abroad, providing an alternative path toward a college degree. These programs are typically 12-weeks in length and allow students to either study in a structured, more traditional program, or gain field experience with varying academic focuses. Though many of Verto’s options are international and likely compromised by travel restrictions, they do offer a program in Hawaii, which may be an option for students who are determined to have a gap year.
Regardless, the entire gap year industry is responding to the current pandemic by reviewing and revamping their offerings. Many are focusing on risk management by considering single-country options with no home stays and limited travel. Some are even incorporating an online component to begin, with hopes to finish with in-person field experiences. One option is a centrally themed experience that all students participate in remotely and earn a certification for finishing. For example, students could learn the basics of diving through an online platform, practice in their local pools, and then earn a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification for completing the course. Though programs are offering remote or online experiences, it is worth considering whether deferring your admission to participate in a virtual gap year program is considerate of your time and finances.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
If taking a gap year aligns with your personal and academic goals, we recommend taking these next steps to ensure that your collegiate future won’t be jeopardized by your decision:
- Know the Rules
Amidst the current pandemic, many colleges and universities are not allowing students to cite COVID-19 as their reason for delaying their enrollment. In fact, some schools have tightened their policies to restrict deferments only to those students participating in structured programs or those seeking military service or religious pursuits. Again, this is why it is important to reflect upon your true intentions for deferment. Schools will likely want a detailed explanation of what you hope to learn and accomplish during your gap year before even considering your request for deferral.
Each institution will have different rules, and having a clear understanding of these rules prior to beginning the process is important. In fact, most colleges who will approve gap years, won’t grant credit for community college classes or experiential courses you complete during a gap year.
For instance, Indiana University allows students to defer for up to one year, with some stipulations on the amount of credits students can earn during that time. In order to be granted a deferral, students will have to provide a description of their plans, often proving their participation in a certain program or course. With this in mind, they do not allow students to take more than 12 credit hours during their deferment period, otherwise they will be classified as a transfer student, which can change their admission status and financial aid opportunities.
- Know the Deadlines
Just as colleges have certain application deadlines, they often follow similarly strict policies regarding deferring enrollment. It is critical that you know exactly when your college’s deadline is. Though meeting this deadline will not guarantee approval of your request, missing it by even a day could foil the chances of being granted a deferment.
Many institutions grant deferrals on a rolling basis, only allowing so many every year. Submitting your request early is often your best chance of being approved. Be aware that there is typically a conflict in dates between college and gap year program deadlines, so make sure you have them written down or saved in your calendar!
- Know the Risks
While the reward of pursing a gap year may seem enticing, we encourage you to consider the risks involved when deferring your enrollment for a semester or longer. For instance, some schools may not offer a guarantee on your admission or merit scholarship after this year. At some colleges you might have to apply all over again. These risks could have a long-lasting impact on your education and are certainly worth exploring in depth.
To diminish the possibility of losing your spot, arrange a time to chat with your school’s admissions counselor over the phone to discuss the ramifications of deferring your enrollment. Make a list of all your questions, even those that you might not want to know the answers to!
Confirm that your merit scholarship will still be available—and at the same amount—once you are ready to enroll in classes. Ask whether you can take CLEP exams for the credits not granted to you from your gap year. Verify that the registrar’s office will accept your credits, regardless of what the website might say. Inquire about the number of requests the college typically grants and whether your admission will be conditional upon your request being accepted. Being informed about these vital questions will help set you up to make a well-informed decision about your future.
Making the Best Decision for You
With the uncertainty circulating around how colleges will react and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has certainly been an increase in interest and publicity surrounding the gap year. Graduating seniors are seeking normalcy after an extraordinary end to their high school careers and a gap year may provide that sense of normalcy for some students.
While the idea of a year abroad or away from the traditional college experience may sound appealing, it is important to be aware of the benefits and consequences of pursuing that path. Ask the hard questions early. Be transparent about your academic and personal goals. Accept that your gap year may look different than you had imagined. As always, stay true to yourself and consider every option before deciding whether a gap year is right for you.