The Covid-19 pandemic was an incredible challenge for college students, and when schools closed and went to distance learning, many students decided to take time off instead – a gap year or even an interim semester.
According to the December 2020 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, post-secondary enrollments fell 2.5% in the fall of 2020, almost twice as fast as the previous year. The NSCRC said the main reason for this decline was a 3.6% decrease in student enrollment.
Many students could no longer afford to enroll. Others didn’t want a diminished college experience as the coronavirus forced most universities online and internships, jobs, and study abroad opportunities were canceled. Others were simply burned out from the stress of the pandemic.
“My family was in a credit crunch … so there were a lot of livelihood questions, what will happen to my grandparents [in China] . So there’s a lot of stress in the air, “said Lily Liu, an international student from China in the Stanford University Class of 2022 (formerly ’21).” As the only child in an immigrant family, I think it was very important to me give my family full attention, “said Liu.
Lily Liu, an international student from China attending Stanford University, was supposed to be studying abroad at the time of the pandemic in Paris. Instead, she took a year off and moved home.
Source: Lily Liu
Nicolas Montoya, a 2024 (formerly ’23) Harvard College Class student, said he found it difficult to adjust to the campus closure and send the students home.
“I mainly chose a gap year because I didn’t have the best experience with the spring semester 2020 when we decided to go virtual [a] first generation [college student] ”It was really hard to find the work-life balance and find a place to study at home,” said Montoya.
Marco Balestri, who majored in American history at Columbia University, had studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and was there for less than three weeks when the pandemic broke out and all students were sent home.
“I hadn’t started the semester there yet and decided to retire from school for the semester just because I really didn’t think about going to school for five months online,” said Balestri.
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Gap years are common as some high school students take a year off before college to travel or volunteer. But that has increased dramatically with the pandemic, as many incoming freshmen who faced the prospect of starting their college life online opted for time off instead. Freshman enrollment in college fell 13.1% in the fall of 2020, compared to a decline of just 1.4% in the fall of 2019, according to the NSCRC.
Some colleges, such as Princeton, Harvard, and Tufts University, even encouraged new entrants to postpone these admission offers and take a year off before entering college. Around 340 Harvard students, or 20% of incoming freshmen, decided to postpone enrollment in the fall of 2020 – that’s more than double the 90 to 130 students they postpone in a typical year.
At other universities there were similar leaps in both incoming and current students who took time out. But gap years during the pandemic were not the same: With borders closed and lockdown orders imposed due to the global spread of Covid-19, gap year students had to find new ways to gain experience and make a difference in 2020.
“I’ve spent my entire year at home. It was a breeze because most of the activities I took part in were unpaid,” said Liu, who recently returned to Stanford.
Liu was originally supposed to study abroad in Paris, but instead spent her year at home doing her thesis, a distance internship, writing music and working on two different research projects with postdocs – one of which examined the investigated use of the technology by the local police and was released during the height of the George Floyd movement last summer.
Montoya worked full-time as a Covid-19 case investigator and volunteered with a nonprofit education organization focused on increasing the graduation rate of Hispanic high school students.
“My two options are completely remote, so I’ll just do them from my nursery,” he explained.
Nicolas Montoya, Gates Scholar at Harvard University with a focus on social sciences in global health and health policy, took a year off for family reasons and gained practical experience.
Source: Steven Garcia-Machuca
Balestri received two consecutive positions as a campaign field organizer in the Democratic Senate in Maine and Georgia during the 2020 election.
“I realized during the summer that I was keen to take leave this fall semester. I hadn’t been fully committed, but I knew I would only do it if I got a full-time job on a campaign.” said Balestri. “And for me I always knew that campaigns are one of the best ways for young people, especially students, to get into politics and government and gain a lot of practical experience in leadership that you can’t get through internships in large companies, Congress or your legislature. “
For some students, a gap year or semester gave them time to think about what they really wanted to do with their future.
“When I got enrolled, I just went through something like ‘I should be taking this course to be on the right track or I should be,'” said Montoya. When I was enrolled, I was actually already a medical doctor, and now I no longer believe that I am already a medical doctor. And that’s actually something I set out to do this gap year, work in healthcare and just see what it really takes to be a doctor, and maybe that’s not for me. “
It also gave students the opportunity to network and explore areas they were interested in.
When I move 300 km / h, it is impossible for me to take a step back and think about things, ”said Liu. “This year, because of the free time, I was able to talk to professionals and people whose work I really admire and from then on I decided I wanted to do a Masters [degree] in sustainability. That wasn’t my intention at all before. “
Balestri said his high stakes and practical work in politics actually had an impact on his studies.
“It really got me to dig deeper into the studies I’m working on,” said Balestri. “I am currently doing a PhD on the origins of the New York state voter registration system in the early 20th century – much of it was influenced by my experience with voter registration in these campaigns.”
Marco Balestri, a history student at Columbia University, was studying abroad in Buenos Aires when the pandemic broke out. After returning home, he retired for the spring semester of 2020 and worked on congress campaigns.
Source: Marco Balestri
The coronavirus pandemic hit Black and Hispanic families harder, and this was reflected on campus: the number of black and Hispanic students on leave in the spring semester when the pandemic first broke out rose 206% and respectively, in comparison 287%, according to a report by the NSCRC, up from 70% for white students and 59% for Asian students.
Some students who choose to take time off because of financial or other difficulties have great concerns that they may not return to college.
“Research has shown that Latinx students in particular are less likely to return to campus the longer they take the interim years to support students when they choose to do an interim year – be it compulsory or voluntary “said Edgar Lopez, a graduate student in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California.
These interruptions and delays have worried Lopez and other higher education experts that the pandemic will delay graduation for colored students and exacerbate existing inequalities in higher education.
Failure to complete their college degree can have a serious impact on the rest of their life – it will be harder to find a job and they will make less money. The average weekly income for someone with college but no degree is $ 415 less than that of someone with a bachelor’s degree, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That money adds up when you think about making, saving, and investing.
Whether a student wants to take time off or is forced to do so for financial or other reasons, experts believe that it is crucial that they do so with the serious intention of returning to campus in the next semester or year.
CNBCs “College votes“is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money, and starting their careers during these extraordinary times. Christian Rodriguez is a student in Columbia University Class of 2022 with a focus on Latin America and Iberian Cultures and European History, Politics and Society.He interned at CNBC’s referral desk in Spring 2021 and is currently a Summer Analyst at Goldman Sachs Cindy Perman.
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