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“I was ready to bounce,” she said. “Bounce from D.C.”
Then, one boring Friday abruptly became the end – her final send-off from high school as the country shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. And as she dragged herself through Woodrow Wilson High School online classes this spring, trying not to read the news stories her mother told her to read, she suddenly realized: She needed a year off.
Never before had she questioned the traditional academic timeline. Now Jordan, like thousands of students across the country, is thinking about taking a gap year. “I can’t make myself go to college right now,” she said.
As the spring semester Zooms toward an anticlimactic end, the question of whether colleges and universities can reopen in the fall became a flash point this week. Many school presidents have announced bold plans to welcome students back to campus, and political leaders have been quick to weigh in. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday on Fox News that if he were a university president today, “I would be planning on going back to school.”
On Tuesday – the day Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, warned on Capitol Hill that reopening the country too soon could lead to suffering and death – California State University, the country’s largest four-year public university system, canceled most in-person classes for the fall. The decision, which will affect close to half a million students, was closely watched amid growing uncertainty about the traditional rituals of college life.
It’s against that backdrop that an unusually high number of students are questioning their fall college plans. About one in five current students is unsure of plans to re-enroll or has decided not to go to college this fall, according to a national survey commissioned by the American Council on Education and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“No school in the country or the world can be certain what the fall will bring,” said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, which in another recent survey found that 96 percent of college presidents are worried about fall enrollment, a crucial revenue source. “They’re all asking the same question: ‘If we open our doors, will the students come?’ “
Colleges are usually happy to let students take a year off, Hartle said, with evidence suggesting that time off is often valuable for students. But that’s in a typical year, when the number of requests is low and administrators can predict how many students will enroll in the fall. This year, he said, “the concern is what happens if 20 percent of your students request a gap year?”
Some college counselors predict students and families talking about deferring will ultimately go forward with college plans. That’s partly because the pandemic is upending gap-year programs just like it’s upending the traditional college path.
Typical gap years include travel, volunteer work, paid work, some career exploration and “a free radical,” said Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association. “Don’t over-structure your time – leave a little space for the unknown.”
But this year, international travel and hands-on volunteer work seem unlikely, and good jobs will be harder than ever to find, said Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools.
“I think it’s been a knee-jerk response to the prospect of things not going back to the old normal in the fall,” Harward said. “I don’t anticipate there will be nearly as many graduating seniors and families actually taking a year away as there are students asking the questions about it now.”
Either way, the uncertainty is unnerving both colleges and students.
Joshua Carter, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, has been thinking about a gap year for a while, after watching a friend spend his time off volunteering in Panama and skiing and working in Jackson Hole. Carter was ready for a break from academics, too; he had an interest in several different scientific fields but was unsure about a college major.
So after being accepted to the University of Maryland, he asked to defer his freshman year, and the school quickly granted the request. He has a summer job as a lab technician and expects to continue it next fall, as long as the pandemic doesn’t affect funding. If he can travel and ski some, he will. “I want to reset on school a little – take a break,” he said. “Figure things out.”
Carter’s story is pretty typical. But this spring, students who never thought they would delay college are considering a break. The Gap Year Association’s online traffic has been 150 percent or more above normal, with hundreds of thousands of students expressing interest, Knight said: “It’s been kind of intense.”
The District of Columbia College Access Program, which offers counseling and scholarships to District students, has already seen a 10 percent increase in students considering a year off, said senior vice president LD Ross Jr. And that’s before most students know for certain what fall will bring. Many don’t want to start classes online, Ross said. Others are worried about money after parents lost jobs. Some are simply worried.
“They’re very fearful of being away from home during this unsettled time,” he said. “They don’t feel safe, so they’re looking at taking a gap year.”
Ross said he worries that students who take a year off may not make it to college. As students consider their options, he said, “a number of them have come back and begun to seriously reconsider the gap year. It’s not as appealing.”
One alternative is going to school somewhere closer and cheaper, especially if gap year programs can’t offer enriching experiences. Community colleges are anticipating students from four-year colleges signing up for classes in the fall.
“Is it better for you to be at home sitting on the couch doing nothing trying to come up with a plan?” asked Sam Bigelow, director of college counseling for the Middlesex School in Massachusetts. “Or better to be earning credits?”
But many colleges don’t allow students to defer admission and then take classes for credit elsewhere, several college counselors said. The students would need to reapply for admission as a transfer student. They also would need to verify that the credits would be accepted.
Deferred-enrollment policies and deadlines vary from school to school. The University of Virginia usually grants about 60 requests a year from admitted students who accept offers but want to defer enrollment. So far, the volume of deferral requests for this time in May is normal, officials said.
At the University of Southern California, there is no deadline for such requests. “So far, there are no numbers to report,” spokeswoman Emily Gersema wrote in an email, “but USC leaders also have not yet announced plans for the fall semester.” Some schools, including Cornell University, have reassured prospective students they will be generous in granting requests for deferrals.
But for Anna Parra Jordan, the decision has become increasingly clear.
Paying the full cost for the University of Pittsburgh – more than $30,000 for out-of-state tuition – if she was just taking classes online didn’t make sense. Even if the school does reopen, she didn’t feel it would be safe to live in a dorm and share classrooms, meals and a social life with thousands of other students. If there’s a second wave of infections, she said, “I don’t want to be in such a cesspool of an environment.”
So last week, she asked to defer her enrollment. She said she is waiting to hear back from the school, which she is thrilled to attend – at the right time.
“I can go a year from now,” she said, “when things are safer.”
The Washington Post’s Donna St. George and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.