The practice of taking a “gap year,” time off before (or, sometimes, during) college, while popular in Europe, has been something of a niche practice in the United States. In a nation with approximately 17 million college undergraduates, only an estimated 60,000 of them take a “gap year” each year. The practice attracted media attention when Malia Obama opted for the year off in her father’s last year in office. Gap years were once a matter of economic necessity; Dwight Eisenhower, for example, worked to help support his brother’s college education before he could leave for West Point. In modern times, however, the gap year has typically been the plaything of the wealthy, who can afford the time to travel, volunteer, or otherwise pursue life enrichment or maturity.
The gap year is suddenly a hotter topic, as colleges face the possibility that the fall semester and maybe the entire 2020-21 academic year could be done remotely, or could face serious restrictions on campus educational, extracurricular, and social activities such as sports, science labs, theater, music, clubs, and parties. A McKinsey Consulting report warns that normal campus life may not return until the fall of 2021. Online higher education still gives students the credits towards a degree that they want, but it is not ‘college life.’ Indeed, the remote-learning experience has reopened debates about what college in America today is really about: Learning? Credentials? Getting to know the right people? Being socialized in how to act around the college-educated?
Students who want more than the bare bones are looking at their options. ABC News reported that “Nearly one in six graduating seniors, according to a poll by the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, now indicate that due to the coronavirus pandemic, they will likely revise their plans of attending a four-year college in the fall and take a gap year,” and sentiment is rising as well for time off among students already enrolled. Campus newspapers and social media are full of buzz about gap years. Decisions by incoming students typically would need to be made by the May 1 deadline for college acceptance, although some schools are extending that this year in light of the uncertain situation.
The impact of a large-scale exodus on campus life can be easily imagined, but could be temporary. Far more worrisome to campus administrators, however, is the fiscal impact. A surge in gap years may not be evenly distributed along economic lines. That could have startling consequences for the finances of colleges. According to the Department of Education’s most recent survey in 2015-16, 72 percent of all undergraduates received some type of financial aid; sixty-three percent received grant aid. Even among students with six-figure family incomes, the majority receive financial aid.
Colleges, especially private colleges that cost in the $60,000-70,000 a year range, rely heavily on the remaining quarter of students who can afford to pay the sticker price. The pressure to retain a baseline of these full-price students is why a number of colleges in recent years have openly adopted “need aware” rather than “need blind” admissions, pleading that their balance sheets require it. That is partly a matter of bringing in revenue, and partly a matter of subsidizing students who receive non-governmental aid.
What happens if the richest students bail out? The entire economic model of campuses could be undermined, especially if nobody at all is paying room and board and there is no revenue to be had from athletic programs, while colleges are still paying for their sprawling real estate and the extensive bureaucratic overhead that supports modern campus life. For some schools, this could create a spiral: Once you are no longer receiving the needed infusion of full-price tuitions, you don’t have the resources to offer as much aid. Doomsayers have predicted a higher-ed bubble-burst for a while now, and we could see it pop. Some schools on the margins may go out of business; others may finally face real pressure to trim back layers of administration and delay campus-life building projects.
Are there reasons to believe that the gap year gap won’t happen? True, there are countervailing trends: Wealthy gap year students will have fewer chances for international travel and globetrotting volunteer work, while some students in the middle- and lower-income tiers may also be deferring school for financial reasons. But staying out of school to make money is not an attractive option when millions of experienced adults are out of work. So, it seems likely that any increase in gap years will disproportionately drain colleges of the students who pay the bills. How the colleges react to that could be one of the major stories of the downstream impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.