The idea of taking a gap year between high school and college has been growing in recent years, but it has always been a niche thing. About 40,000 students did some kind of gap year last year, according to the Gap Year Association. But that’s out of more than 2 million first-time college students starting as freshmen in the U.S. each year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a rush of interest in the gap year, since most campuses have not yet decided whether they will be open for traditional classes in the fall, and many college have already decided they’ll at least start with online teaching and shuttered campuses. Today, May 1, is the traditional date that students must tell colleges whether or not they accept an offer of admission, though many have extended that deadline until June.
For many students, deferring admission for a year is suddenly attractive.
The Gap Year Association, for instance, has seen a huge spike in people looking into the idea. One day this week, its website traffic was up 150 percent compared to the same day the previous year, says Ethan Knight, the group’s executive director.
But it’s worth noting that what students will be looking for in a COVID gap year might be different than what people wanted from gap years in the past.
Experts say that gap years have typically been done by students who don’t yet know what they want to major in, and who hope that a mix of service projects and international travel will help them figure that out.
Today, what seems to be driving much of the new interest in gap years is simply buying time until campuses reopen, and an aversion to paying the full price of a residential college when the residential portions will be unavailable, limited or delayed. And going abroad may remain difficult with various travel restrictions and rules in place, Knight added.
For some students, taking a gap year might not even be a choice. With so many Americans suddenly out of work due to the shutdown of so many businesses, some families may no longer be able to pay for the colleges for their children.
The question for those who defer admission will be what kind of productive activity they can do when so much of the country is in lockdown.
Knight, of the Gap Year Association, says his group recommends four key components for making a year off before college worthwhile:
- Service work or volunteering
- Internship or career mentorship
- Some amount of paid work
- Something creative, so that the year is not over-scheduled
He says that he expects a burst of interest in AmeriCorps service programs, some of which may continue through the pandemic.
For a fee, several companies offer gap year programs that provide students guidance and mentorship. Knight says that since many of those programs take small cohorts, they might find it easier than colleges to create in-person opportunities while still following social-distancing rules.
And some gap year programs are working to move their programming online. For instance, Year On, which runs gap year programs, says it is shifting to online coaching and programs, and is working to set up remote internships, according to Charlie Taibi, the company’s CEO.
Some students who take a gap year may end up working to help administer contact-tracing programs being considered in some states, which will require huge temporary workforces, Taibi predicts.
It’s still unclear just how many students who were set to start college in the fall will put it off.
Christine Chapman, a college counselor at Personalized Educational Solutions in Hopkinton, Mass. says that about 80 percent of the students she is working with have committed to a college for the fall. Some of the others are considering a gap year, but they are still weighing their options.