Deferments, Gap Year Programs: Uncharted Waters for Students and Schools in a Coronavirus Landscape

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As colleges and universities begin to plot out the logistics of a fall semester, it’s unclear whether incoming students will defer enrollment. But even for students who opt to delay their higher education, filling in that time could prove challenging with increased unemployment and travel restrictions prohibiting them from participating in unique gap year opportunities. 

According to a report conducted by CampusLogic, students who elect to defer enrollment were less likely to complete a four year college degree than those who enrolled immediately following high school, but that trend could change due to coronavirus. 

“Because of the unprecedented nature or reason that individuals will be taking a gap year this year, I don't think that these trends that we see in this visualization will hold,” said Amy Glynn, vice president for student financial success at CampusLogic.

While students may be hesitant to enroll in a traditional four-year institution, it is unlikely that they will completely disengage from opportunities related to higher education. 

“I also question the number of students who will take a true gap year where they're not engaging with a college or university in any way. I think that we will see more students who may not be enrolled, traditionally, but are doing some coursework in an online fashion, even if they're staying home during that year,” Glynn said.

Any decision related to deferment is largely dependent on the student’s situation, but in light of the pandemic nearly every student has been forced to reassess their options. Some are now considering a gap year, which could allow them to take extra time in plotting out their choices when it comes to higher education.

“We see gap years that can be highly successful for students, but those are often in situations where it is a very strategically planned gap year,” Glynn said.

Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, an independent gap year counseling organization, said there are two waves of gap year students: those who defer enrollment after completing their high school programs, and those who step away from college to sort out their career goals.

“I really stand behind the idea here that it almost matters less what the students do than the fact that they're choosing what they're doing, that they're choosing and owning their lives,” Bull said.

Interest in gap year programs for the upcoming academic calendar haven’t necessarily been prompted by a renewed interest in the opportunity. Rather, it is due to COVID-19 challenging student options for the upcoming calendar year.

“The problem this year is I'm seeing students with one foot in college mentally and one foot in the gap year,” Bull said. “We're seeing across the spectrum, responses. One young man said, ‘You know I hate to say this, but I really am glad COVID happened, I would never have thought about a gap here. This sounds incredible.’”

While the uncertainty of the upcoming academic year has given students the opportunity to explore new options, it could also negatively impact vulnerable populations. 

For low-income and first generation students, a gap year after high school could remove them from a number of support networks that could help them navigate financing their postsecondary education.

“When you think about them losing access to college counselors and resources and places of getting information, that's something that could be a little bit concerning for those populations,” Glynn said. “But I think in general we've got people considering a gap year for an unprecedented reason.”

At the outset of a call with a number of gap year experts, George Pernsteiner, a senior consultant at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) Consulting, said he was concerned about students taking a gap year not because they want to, but because they feel they have to due to the pandemic. 

“I fear particularly for those who are from lesser income categories and have fewer resources than a lot of their peers do,” Pernsteiner said. “How are they going to keep making progress so that, in fact, they do wind up matriculating in a year's time, or two years' time without having lost momentum that they might have had if they had had a structured year?” 

Julia Rogers, founder of EnRoute Consulting, which specializes in gap year consultancy, said a useful framework for lower-income students could be national service.

“It plugs them into the AmeriCorps alumni network, which has job opportunities and scholarships and all that,” Rogers said. “If we saw more opportunities come online for our young people, I think that's a fantastic way to keep people on track, put them in this container that gives them structure and meaning, and helps funnel them back to college.”

The experts also pointed to a number of scholarship opportunities for students pursuing specific gap year programs.

While a gap year program could be a good opportunity in times of uncertainty, students should also be aware that from an admissions and financial aid standpoint, each institution of higher education is different when it comes to deferment.

“Students need to be really careful about checking with the admissions office or the enrollment office, and also really looking into what happens to the financial aid offer that they received for the current year if they're not going to use it,” Glynn said. “Do all of their scholarship dollars automatically roll to a future year or do they need to reapply? Those could be pretty significant changes in a student's ability to afford college.”

Glynn speaks from personal experience — in her undergraduate program, she took a semester off, and her financial aid package suffered as a result. 

“I did not find out how I needed to notify the financial aid office, and learned a very painful lesson around my scholarship dollars when I went to re-enroll at the institution, and it was just after a semester break,” Glynn said.  

When it comes to the cohort of gap year students, there is a significant difference between those who have just finished high school and those who have completed some college, particularly those with student loan debt.

Glynn said students with student loan debt need to be aware of their initial grace period when it comes to loan repayment, and that they have options for income-driven repayment plans or can defer payments during periods of unemployment. 

“Anytime we face a situation where we have students who hold debt, but haven't yet earned a degree. That's something that's concerning to me in general,” Glynn said.

As schools begin to contemplate the implications of deferments and the fall semester, Glynn stressed that they will need to reevaluate how they can best serve students.

“The aid offices in the colleges and universities, their goal is to help students achieve the American dream through higher education,” Glynn said. “It's a great opportunity for colleges and universities to innovate around, not only academic delivery, but delivery of student financial success, which just means better student outcomes around funding that allows students to enroll, persist and graduate from their institution.”


Publication Date: 5/27/2020

David S | 5/27/2020 4:36:15 PM

Eh...I'm sure it wasn't meant this way, but "a useful framework for lower-income students could be national service" sounds pretty close to "poor kids could always be put to work as volunteers."

I think most people hear "gap year" and think of a rich kid backpacking through Europe courtesy of an early trust fund disbursement. Those students usually wind up doing just fine. I think the gap year that most often results in not completing a degree are those who just aren't sure if they want to go to college or not. Those are two different populations. But I think in 20/21, we're going to see students from throughout the socioeconomic spectrum take time off because they don't wan to spend full-time 4-year money to sit in their bedrooms with a laptop for a semester.

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