Seniors consider gap years amidst coronavirus pandemic

Eli Gordon, Editor-in-Chief, Print

For current seniors at Urban, the year 2020 was meant to be a relatively scripted experience: celebrate in the spring, graduate in June, and move away to college in August or September. But just as the coronavirus pandemic has done away with traditional end-of-high-school rituals, it has introduced uncertainty about the coming fall. Many colleges around the United States are preparing plans for possible fall semesters that include options ranging from entirely virtual classes to the traditional residential college experience. Most will not make final decisions until mid-July.

Amidst this uncertainty, more seniors are contemplating taking a gap year, a practice of deferring admission for one year in which students typically work or volunteer. Before the coronavirus pandemic, only three percent of graduating seniors in the U.S. deferred admission, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Now, according to a poll by the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, nearly one in six seniors (around 17 percent) are considering deferring.

“I don’t want to do more online school,” said Stella Robinson ‘20, who has decided to take a gap year. “With coronavirus going on, it’s hard for me to focus and find the motivation to go on to college. By taking a gap year, I want to regain some of that motivation.”

Robinson is one of an increased number of Urban seniors who are contemplating deferring their enrollment. According to Lauren Gersick, Director of College Counseling at Urban, around three to seven students in a graduating Urban class typically defer admission in a normal year. This year, she’s spoken to more than ten who are considering it. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who really don’t know,” she said. “It’s up in the air. They’re waiting to see what the colleges decide.”

Christopher Lee ‘20, who is considering a deferral, wants to wait until he knows whether college will be virtual in the fall before making a decision. “If I had it up to me, I would say if it’s virtual school, I’ll defer, and if it’s not virtual school, I’ll go,” Lee said. But “my impression is that I can’t [do that] — I have to defer early.”

Gersick said that in response to increased interest in gap years, colleges are pursuing one of two routes. “There’s a group of schools that’s getting really flexible — they’re saying you can change your mind at any time, just let us know what your plans are, just keep us apprised,” Gersick said. “We’re also seeing groups of schools that are getting much more rigid.”

This rigidity comes in part as a response to concerns that there will not be enough freshman spots for current high school juniors. “Part of the reason about making people declare their gap years early is so that there’s room for juniors,” Gersick said. Juniors are “not going to be displaced by the number of current seniors who would be taking a gap year,” she said.

Robinson felt clear about her decision as soon as it became apparent that this spring term would be virtual for its entirety. “I want to have a break between high school and college,” she said. “I was going to take a bit of a break and do stuff senior spring, but now that I can’t do that, I want a different break.”

For Lee, the decision is more about what he wants to get out of college. “You’re buying college [as an experience] with all this money you’re putting into it,” he said. “You get to live at college. You get to transform yourself as a person. I don’t think I can do that at virtual school.”

While colleges have refunded housing costs for the spring semester, most have not decreased their tuition and do not plan to do so for the fall, even if instruction remains virtual. For Lee, “that seems kind of sh***y. You’re not getting some things you’d otherwise be getting,” he said.

Gersick said that “there are a lot of reasons to take a gap year next year, particularly if the economics of it feels complicated.” At the same time, she cautioned, “I’m concerned people are reflexively going to take a year off without thinking about what that year would really mean.” Many opportunities traditionally associated with gap years may be unavailable or relegated to the online sphere if shelter-in-place restrictions continue into the fall.

In addition, “people may already be feeling unmoored by the things that are on hold or shut down,” Gersick said. “Having an anchor of school next year may be something to consider, be it in-person physically or not.”

Robinson and Lee both have tentative plans for their gap years that include remote internships in addition to in-person volunteering work if shelter-in-place orders are lifted. Robinson’s parents “definitely want me to make the best of this gap year,” Robinson said. “They’ve pushed me to fill up my time with a lot of things [not just] to show the colleges that I’ve been doing stuff but also for my personal growth.”
“I can do [my internship] from home, and it’s something to do that I can put on a resume,” Lee said. “It would be more important to me than what I would be doing in virtual school.”

For those seniors who begin college as planned, however, Gersick believes that this fall will at least be better than the current spring. “It’s a long time for people to get more comfortable teaching on Zoom [and] thinking of ways to engage with their students,” she said. “From a residential standpoint, it’s still not ideal, but from a course-content standpoint, my guess is that it will be better than in the spring.”

But for Lee, any time in college spent in virtual classes rather than on-campus is a loss. “I’m really looking forward to college,” he said. “It’s not something that I am eager to chop time off of.”