Many students have spent years planning their post-graduation path. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended not only their senior year, but the entire national economy, and high school seniors are graduating into a world no one was prepared for.
“The bottom line is, the college experience this fall will be very different,” says Robert Farrington, student loan expert at The College Investor. With all of this uncertainty, prospective college students may be re-evaluating their options for continuing their education, including whether to postpone it.
We asked the experts what students should keep in mind when considering the question: Should I take a gap year?
What is a gap year?
A gap year is a typically yearlong break from traditional schooling before the start of a student’s first year of college. This can be a foundational time for young adults to learn more about their career interests, get involved in volunteer work or take time to travel.
Should you take a gap year?
Whether or not to take a gap year is a complex decision that depends on your unique situation and goals, but there are a few things that can help you make this decision.
Know what you’re looking for in your college experience
There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to post-graduation plans, and that hasn’t changed because of the novel coronavirus. Understanding the end goal you’re working toward will help steer you in the right direction by ensuring you’re picking a path that can help you get there.
A well-rounded college experience that fosters lessons in and outside of the classroom is a big part of why people have traditionally invested so much in secondary education, graduating with an average of $29,800 in student loan debt in 2018. But there’s no telling what a typical college experience will look like in the future. “I think we’re beyond anticipating things to be the same as they were in the past,” says Geoff Heckman, a school counselor at Platte County High School. “I would also encourage students to consider other factors in making this decision.”
Understand the implications
Some colleges will allow students to defer their acceptance in order to experience a gap year, but it’s important to understand how that deferment will impact your college career if you choose to take it. “For instance, will your financial aid package be the same if you take a year off, will your motivation be the same, will you still want to attend the same school?” Heckman prompts.
Also keep in mind that, due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions and social distancing measures, even a gap year is likely to be affected by this virus. If you’re interested in volunteering with an organization, for example, you can reach out to a representative to discuss how their program may be impacted.
Consider other options
These are unprecedented times, so it doesn’t hurt to explore all of your alternatives before arriving at a final decision. “For students considering going away to college, I would urge them to reconsider,” says Farrington. “With so much uncertainty about whether classes will be online, what travel will look like, and more, I don’t think it’s worth it from an ROI (return on investment) standpoint.”
If you find that your original choice is going to be too much of a financial burden, Farrington suggests, “maybe go to community college for the next year to significantly save expenses, and transfer to a university after that.”
Where to find additional financial support for school
If you’re still interested in attending college in the fall but have been financially impacted by COVID-19, there are options available for you to receive additional support.
Seek additional financial aid
The CARES Act also created a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to support students impacted by COVID-19, but it isn’t something you’ll be able to apply for on your own. The U.S. Department of Education’s website says that “Institutions have the responsibility of determining how grants will be distributed to students.”
“If a student’s finances have dramatically changed, it’s important to contact your school’s financial aid office immediately,“ Farrington told us.
Find support from your high school
“I would also encourage students to be in contact with their school counselor as their plans emerge and change, as each student has unique circumstances and their school counselor may be able to guide them to resources that are specific to their needs,” Heckman recommends.
Your school counselor is also a great resource for you to discuss your individual situation, potentially over email, a phone call, or in-person, depending on your school’s current operations. “During this time our first priority is the physical and social/emotional well being of our students, which includes answering questions of concern about plans after high school,” Heckman explains.
At the Simple Dollar, we have been following COVID-19 since the start. Check out the articles below for resources and the latest news on financial relief from the coronavirus.
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