Life is so challenging right now, and I know that parents and their graduating high school seniors feel extremely vulnerable. Traditional rights of passage like in-person graduation ceremonies are gone, usual support systems have been drastically altered, and it may feel like we are all floating around in this amorphous limbo that’s only filled with questions and anxiety. Financial situations have changed, so many carefully-made plans have been cancelled. Worst of all, no one has answers about the future. Faced with this kind of a situation, it’s completely understandable for many people to do their best to regain some sense of control over their lives. One way that parents and their graduating seniors are attempting to do just that is by seriously considering having these students take gap years, believing that delaying higher education by one year will be the solution to the current serious obstacles facing higher ed. Unfortunately, too many people don’t realize that taking a gap year is NOT the solution to the problems that they face, and that gapping without carefully thinking through this decision could result in many more complications and problems.
What’s so wrong with taking a gap year? Absolutely nothing! To be clear, I’m a fan of gap years, since they may encourage independence, more maturity, and a greater appreciation of education. Students who take gap years often begin their college careers with a deeper sense of purpose and clarity, and the motivation to make the most out of their higher ed. opportunity that they demonstrate frequently make them excellent role models for their peers. HOWEVER, the COVID 19 pandemic has permanently changed our world, and gap year experiences are no exceptions. When I read articles suggesting that graduating seniors deal with today’s uncertainty by taking a gap year (like this one https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherrim/2020/04/28/thinking-about-taking-a-gap-year-due-to-covid-19-heres-how-to-make-the-most-of-it/#5ca92d7e111c ), I worry that too many families will make this decision from an uninformed place of fear, and that students could pay a high price for this kind of impulsiveness.
What’s the big deal? First, incoming first-years MUST ASK their college or university’s admission office for permission to defer. This means that the school in question will save a spot in the Class of 2025 for the students, and this student will not need to reapply for admission, if this deferral request is approved. NOT ALL DEFERRAL REQUESTS ARE APPROVED!!!! Just because you ask for one doesn’t mean that the school has to approve your request. All admission offices have a maximum number of deferral requests that they are able to approve without having the school suffer budget problems, housing issues, and other complications. Many schools have already reached their maximum, so don’t assume that your request will be automatically approved. Moreover, the school could approve the request but let you know that you will need to reapply for financial aid and that your current award will not wait for you. The worst case scenario here is that the school denies your deferral request, and instructs you that, if you wish to take a gap year, you will have to reapply to the school to be considered for the Class of 2025. Think about that: you just completed this long, exhausting, rigorous, and complicated process - does anyone in your family want to go through this AGAIN???
Next, gap year experiences before COVID 19 may have included everything from getting a job (and saving money for college), traveling abroad, and taking courses from a different university. The pandemic has made all of these things that much more difficult. As millions of Americans continue to file for unemployment, finding A JOB for recent high school graduates will be very challenging, let alone one that keeps the student relatively safe AND provides some kind of meaningful experience. Border remain closed so free-form traveling abroad will likely not be an option for some time, and abroad programs are severely limiting what small options are still available (making these aboard programs even more competitive). Meanwhile, many colleges and universities in the U.S. are restricting the amount of college credit that they will accept to transfer (for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this blog post). If your student wants to take a gap year now, what is she going to do? How will she spend her time?
There’s also the emotional/social/developmental side of your student to consider. What happens if your student takes a gap year but her friends choose to go to college. How will your student make new friends during this gap year? Will she continue living with your family? Is that going to be OK? Will everyone be able to get along (parents and siblings included here)? Is the parent/child dynamic in a good place? How is the mental health situation here? Will your student be able to develop the kind of independent living skills that college first years have to learn? How will your student grow in autonomy? How will parents treat their new young adult?
And then there are the finances. How will taking gap year affect family finances? Is a gap year going to delay a parent’s retirement even more? Will your family’s financial situation be better or worse a year from now? How will this affect paying for college?
As you can see, one shouldn’t make the decision to take a gap year lightly. My interactions with students over the years have shown me that the best gap year experiences are the ones where students have made detailed plans about what specific goals they want to achieve and what skills they want to learn over a concrete period of time, and these same students have the ability to be flexible and amend their plans when life inevitably changes. If your family is seriously considering having your student take a gap year instead of matriculating at your chosen school, please consult the following trusted resources for more guidance on how best to plan for this: https://www.gapyearassociation.org/, https://www.gooverseas.com/gap-year/usa-fairs, and https://www.interimprograms.com/ .
Finally, if you’re convinced that a gap year isn’t the right fit for you or your child right now, take heart. All is not lost if this fall college and university courses end up being online. Online learning should not be the purgatory it has been over the past few months - your professors will have more warning and time now to prepare their coursework digitally. They will have more timely support from their IT departments to improve the online learning experience, and, most importantly, they will have some online teaching experience under their belts (keep in mind that, when the pandemic shut schools down in March, some professors had never heard of Zoom before, let alone knew how to teach using that platform). Read this recent article published on slate.com for more ideas on how to change your mindset to make the most out of online learning: https://slate.com/technology/2020/05/online-college-fall-2020.html.
Life as we know it will never be the same again, and that includes the college experience. Having a positive, growth mindset - one that is open to new opportunities even if they mean getting out of your comfort zone - will help everyone navigate this current challenge. Making rash, impulsive decisions from a place of fear, however, will likely lead only to more problems.
Maruta Z. Vitols is an independent educational consultant in the metro-Boston area. When not helping students achieve their dreams, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, exploring new places with her husband, and doing yoga.