High School Grads: Start College in Fall 2020 or Take a Gap Year?


In the 2019 – 2020 school year, private colleges charged an average of $36,880 in tuition and fees, according to EducationData.org. That doesn’t include room and board, which added another $12,990 on average.

But with campuses nationwide closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fall semester still shrouded in uncertainty, many students and parents can’t help but wonder: “Is it worth it?”

Students and parents alike had already been balking at and looking for ways to reduce extraordinarily high college education costs. The annual cost of sending a student to the average private college exceeds the median personal income in the United States ($33,706, according to the Federal Reserve). Without the full in-person experience, as many as 35% of prospective students have changed plans to take a gap year, per a poll by higher-education consulting firm the Art & Science Group.

Unfortunately, many students who want a traditional college experience face a dilemma. As you explore your options for the 2020 – 2021 school year, bear the following in mind because each college is approaching the pandemic differently, and each student has their own unique priorities.

Differing College Policies

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 68% of colleges plan to open normally and offer traditional in-person classes and campus housing. Another 7% are proposing a hybrid model, 6% are planning online classes, and another 20% are still weighing their options.

Continuing the online-only education model that schools hastily adopted in the spring simply doesn’t seem viable. One survey by Carnegie Dartlet found that colleges would lose a third of their students if they continue exclusively online education in the fall semester.

Colleges exploring a hybrid model would allow students to return to campus, but without full in-person learning. Students could live in dorms, eat at dining halls, participate in some campus activities. But some or all of their classes would remain online, and while they would get some form of “in-person academic support,” it certainly couldn’t replace a dynamic roundtable discussion.

Some colleges, such as Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts, plan to offer their students a choice of the three models. They can continue online learning from home, return to campus for in-person education, or participate in a hybrid model. While that gives students autonomy to choose the model they prefer, it could also provide colleges some legal protection against liability for on-campus outbreaks.

The Economic Reality for Colleges

Many colleges simply can’t afford not to reopen for in-person learning.

Brown University president Christina Paxson wrote in an opinion piece published by The New York Times that “remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.” And the University of Michigan told the Detroit Free Press that they estimate a loss of up to $1 billion this year.

In turn, that would mean significant cuts and downsizing for the colleges that survive and permanent closure for others.

Most colleges must reopen. Perhaps with additional health and safety rules in place. Perhaps with wider spacing between students in classrooms and other precautions. But most can’t stay online-only.

Colleges and universities are getting hit from multiple angles simultaneously. In the spring, they had to scramble to implement online learning systems, which cost money to buy and roll out in a systematic way and train faculty and staff to use.

At the same time, they had to partially refund room and board fees to students returning home. And that says nothing of all the irate parents and students demanding tuition refunds, which some colleges issued.

Looking forward to the 2020 – 2021 school year, colleges face declining enrollment, as surveys show between 25% and 35% of students mulling withdrawal (see the studies cited above and the April 2020 study from Top Hat).

And the college crisis doesn’t end at the raw enrollment numbers. American colleges and universities have increasingly leaned on international students paying full tuition to pad their revenues — and they’re pulling back as well. In an April letter to Congress, the American Council on Education estimated a 25% drop in lucrative international student enrollment.

College Tuition Calculation Cost Bill Invoice

Options for Attending College in Fall 2020

For many students, the prospect of attending college come August comes down to how that college experience looks.

As you explore your options, remember that you don’t need to go to the school you originally planned to attend. Colleges are desperate for revenue right now, putting you in a far greater negotiating position than usual. Don’t be afraid to jump ship and reenroll elsewhere if your current college doesn’t plan to offer education on your terms.

The Traditional In-Person Experience

Students of traditional colleges and universities don’t just pay for the education. They pay for the experience, beautiful campus, facilities, and animated discussions in small classrooms. They pay for the social infrastructure and networking opportunities.

Few people would pay $36,880 per year for online classes. They could get a similar education and experience through online universities, local public universities, or community colleges — at a tiny fraction of that cost.

Colleges know that and will move heaven and Earth to reopen their campuses with as “normal” an experience as possible. Over two-thirds of them already plan to reopen in-person learning, even without a COVID-19 virus vaccine or treatment.

So, for the majority of entering freshmen who look forward to the traditional college experience, they can find some relief in the notion that colleges’ interests align perfectly with theirs in that respect. If your school doesn’t plan to reopen in person, you can always try to change schools. But the earlier you do so, the better.

Online Learning Model

The online learning model works well for some students and not at all for others. It requires a great deal of self-discipline and innate motivation, which not everyone possesses.

If your school plans to reopen as online-only in the fall, consider carefully whether you want to pay full tuition or whether you could get a similar online education from companies like edX at a fraction of the cost elsewhere. You could get a potentially better online education from an online university with an established system in place.

You can always transfer to a more prestigious college after the pandemic. Remember, the only school that appears on your diploma is the final one where you graduate. For years now, many students and parents have saved on education expenses by spending a year or two at a community college, then transferring to a traditional university. Starting at an online university during the pandemic simply updates that model.

Explore Hybrid Options

If you want the campus experience, but feel queasy at the thought of packing into an auditorium with 200 strangers, you could always try out one of the colleges offering hybrid education.

For example, Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, New Hampshire, slashed their 2020 – 2021 year tuition to $10,000, down from $31,000. Students get to live on campus and participate in campus life and extracurricular activities, but all classes will be held online. They’re even offering an “innovation scholarship” to cover that tuition in full for incoming freshmen to sweeten the offer.

While some parents and students have had to fight to get refunds on their deposits for the 2020 – 2021 school year, most colleges and universities are releasing deposits for students who want to cancel. More so than in any normal year, you sit in the driver’s seat and can change schools and programs to meet your personal needs and goals.

That could mean any of the education options above, or it could mean taking an unexpected gap year.

Gap Year: A Viable Delay Tactic?

I have a brother nearly 20 years my junior who returned home from college in March. He despises online learning and continues grumbling about not going back in the fall if the school doesn’t reopen in person.

He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment. But the alternatives come with their own challenges right now, as the pandemic has also rocked both the travel and working worlds.

The Travel Gap Year

Often, students take a gap year to travel. It can help young adults develop perspective and maturity when they can see the world on their own and expose themselves to other cultures.

Many volunteer abroad, pushing them outside the bubble of their middle-class American experience to date. They encounter true poverty face-to-face. Among the many reasons to volunteer, it can force them to grow as a person and to acknowledge a world bigger than themselves.

Even if they don’t volunteer, traveling the world inherently expands your horizons. But as meaningful as international travel is, it’s far harder to stay safe while traveling abroad right now.

Would-be travelers face new COVID-19-induced travel restrictions. Some airlines have already succumbed to bankruptcy, and both domestic and international flights have plummeted. U.S. passenger volume dropped 96% in the six weeks from March 1 to April 16, according to Business Insider.

Many countries have closed their borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even if you have no fear of COVID-19 and want to press forward with a world tour, you physically can’t travel to many destinations right now.

Then there’s the question of what you’d find when you got there. With entire countries having closed all leisure and hospitality businesses, including restaurants, bars, and tourist attractions, you don’t have much to look forward to upon arrival.

In other words, it’s a bad time to travel the world. The worst time in modern history, in fact.

The Working Gap Year

Not everyone spends their gap year backpacking across Asia or volunteering in developing countries. Some students take a year to work in the hope that firsthand experience can help them choose the right career path or simply earn more money to cover expensive tuition.

Like travel, it can work wonders in helping young adults find direction. But it hinges on one central requirement: the ability to actually find work.

With the U.S. unemployment rate over 15% for the first time since the Great Depression, millions of extremely qualified workers find themselves at home with no job prospects. That doesn’t bode well for high school graduates with no skills who seek only to try on different careers for size.

It helps if their parents have an extensive professional network. If you know enough people in positions of power, one of them can probably secure a low-paying job. But not necessarily in the field the graduate wants to explore — which is often the entire purpose of a working gap year. As you explore taking a year to work, start with a high-level view of the types of employers hiring during the pandemic.

Alternatively, college students can take a gap year to volunteer locally. It may not offer the career insights they hoped to gain, but it can prove gratifying in other ways. With the unemployment rate so high right now, there’s certainly no shortage of people in need. Brainstorm ways to volunteer and give back to your community if you want to take a year off college but can’t find work or travel.

Gap Year Written On Rock Beach Travel

Questions to Answer Before Deciding What to Do Next Year

As you weigh your options for the next year, consider the following questions. If you don’t know what you want, you aren’t likely to get it.

1. What Kind of Education Experience Do I Want?

Do you want or need traditional in-person learning, all online learning, or a hybrid solution that brings students back to campus without a complete return to in-person classes? Get very clear on which option would work best for you.

2. Does My Enrolled College Offer That Option?

If the college you enrolled in doesn’t offer the option you need, you have a more difficult decision to make. You can continue with them and accept a different educational model. Although for the high cost of college tuition, you should get the educational experience you want.

Alternatively, you can switch directions and enroll in another school (perhaps a cheaper one) — or defer college and take a gap year.

3. If You Want to Change Schools, Which One Offers a Better Fit?

Plan A doesn’t always work out. So where would you attend as Plan B?

It may feel daunting to go back to the drawing board, but you’ve already laid most of the groundwork for the decision. You probably applied to multiple colleges and probably received acceptance letters from several of those. Start by checking those other schools’ plans to see if one or more plans to offer the educational structure you want.

If none of them do, then expand your search. With over 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S., you’ll find at least one that meets your criteria and price point and would be happy to accept your business for the 2020 – 2021 school year and beyond.

4. If You Took a Gap Year, What Would You Do With It?

In normal times, gap years can offer enormous opportunities for personal growth. But these aren’t normal times, and you have fewer options on the table for a gap year.

But that doesn’t mean you have zero options. Explore travel and working ideas carefully if a gap year appeals to you, and form a plan based on your goals.

5. Am I Putting My Parents at Greater Risk by Living at Home?

If you’re still seeing friends and significant others in person, the answer is a resounding yes.

While young adults enjoy very low mortality rates from COVID-19, the same can’t be said for their older family members. What young adults bring home can kill their parents and grandparents.

I’ve watched this play out in my own family, where my parents struggled with and ultimately gave up trying to enforce social distancing among my college-age siblings. They simply refuse to go without seeing friends and significant others for months on end — and they make up the greatest risk of infection for my 60-something parents.

Whatever you decide for the coming year, I urge you to either leave your parents’ house or comply with strict social distancing guidelines until the pandemic ends.

Final Word

Like so many industries, higher education is being forced to evolve uncomfortably fast.

The sudden and rapid industry disruption will see some colleges go under. The survivors will need to adapt by cutting fees, streamlining administrative bloat, and getting creative in reopening campuses safely.

As you and your family decide how to approach college this fall, ask first what your ideal college experience looks like during the pandemic. If your enrolled college doesn’t offer it, consider finding another that does.

And if you think you might find reprieve in a gap year, beware that it’s a terrible year for both traveling and working. But that doesn’t make it impossible, and you could potentially do some good in the world by volunteering either at home or abroad.

What are your plans for the 2020 – 2021 school year? If you don’t plan to attend college, what do you plan to do instead?

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