One of the hottest topics among high-school seniors (and the parents thereof) is whether this is a good time to take a “gap” year and delay freshman year until 2021. The motivation to skip next year is clear. Freshman year is a momentous time for everyone who attends college, and a joyful time of exploration. The idea of having freshman year sucked away from you by “remote learning” and social-distancing guidelines that ban keg parties, sports, and club meetings must be devastating. But economics being the dismal science, it should not surprise that an analysis of the economics of a gap year suggests that rising freshman should bite the bullet and attend.
The first consideration is “opportunity cost,” which enters the equation through two main effects. The opportunity cost of attending includes not doing whatever you might do during a gap year. The opportunity cost of attending freshman classes this year includes not attending them next year. But the gap year, which in the past might have involved travel or public service, will be far less enjoyable than a normal gap year. Instead of remote learning, you will be remote gapping, and probably doing that around your parents. And remote learning in college is going to be far different than it was in high school. In college, many freshman classes are in giant lecture halls that hold hundreds of students. Watching such a lecture on a computer is not much different from attending the class.
Some universities are going to hold smaller classes in large rooms, and big lectures remotely. Students who hate remote learning can load up on small classes, students who want to get the introductory classes out of the way can remote-learn the giant lectures. Either way, the opportunity cost of not taking freshman classes next year seems very small relative to the alternative.
As for social life, it will improve dramatically once COVID-19 is under control, and it will be difficult until then. That is true whether or not you attend college, and imagine the joy that will sweep through campus once everyone has received a vaccine. Would you rather be on campus when that happens, or at home with your parents?
The next consideration is the impact of these difficult times on supply and demand. Many students will likely choose to take a gap year. That means that the students who don’t will benefit from smaller class sizes and easier access to popular classes. And the 2024 graduating class will surely be the smallest in decades. That means that kids who tough it out and go this year will enter the job market (or the graduate-school admissions game) with an enormous numbers advantage. Jobs and admission will be less competitive than ever.
On the other hand, students who choose a gap year move their graduation date to 2025, which will probably be the biggest graduating class in decades. Admissions directors are going to have to stuff more people into the entering class in 2021. A little forward thinking (difficult for an 18-year-old, admittedly) makes a gap year seem like a very bad choice.
As we look ahead to the coming year, schools across the country have taken wildly different stances on the fall semester. The most sensible approach out there has been taken by Cornell University, which is going to rely heavily on pooled testing to isolate sick students and keep healthy students safe. It is likely that students who attend Cornell in the fall will be safer than those who take a gap year. To the extent that a school copies the Cornell protocol, then, health concerns argue for attendance as well.
A final thought for rising high-school seniors is in order. Since many students are going to choose to take a gap year, colleges are going to have many fewer spots open for their 2021 freshman class. These will be swallowed up by 2020 freshman who deferred. Accordingly, admission this year is going to be tougher than ever, and parents and students who are making application decisions should weigh carefully the percentage of this year’s freshman class who deferred entry.
As for me, I am very much not looking forward to having an empty nest in September but feel quite sure that skipping the gap year, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, is a sound choice.