College and Coronavirus: No, Gap Years Aren’t Free

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Gap years have long been an option for college students who wanted to take a deep dive into a yearlong internship, do overseas volunteer work or even backpack across Europe. In 2020, the coronavirus eliminated those plans, yet there’s still lots of discussion happening around college students snagging a gap year this coming academic season.

But these gap years will have nothing to do with introspective soul-searching and everything to do with the fact that many colleges and universities will be closed for at least the fall semester.

While these institutions are still offering online learning options, many students (and their parents) know that the college experience just won’t be the same without football games, dining hall gossip, walks across the quad with friends and late nights pulling stupid pranks in dorm rooms. While Zoom, Skype and other video conferencing technologies are capable of a lot of things, they can’t bottle the halcyon days of a true college experience.

So, what’s a college kid to do if they want to ensure they get “real” college, and as little of this virtual stuff as possible? Enter the Gap Year: Coronavirus Edition.

First, is it even possible? 

Deferral rules (a “deferral” is the technical term for a gap year) vary widely by school, and many schools have tightened the rules for approving just who gets to take a gap year, since it’s expected that requests will be abundant Don’t forget that colleges, much like companies across the country, are struggling right now.

The University of Michigan has projected losses of up to $1 billion for the year. At the University of Colorado, the Boulder campus alone will lose a minimum of $67 million through the end of the summer. In other words, colleges need all the paying customers they can get.

If a gap year is something you’re seriously considering, call your school’s admissions office or registrar to start a conversation. Only those officials can give you the approval you seek, and they can walk you through what a gap year might mean for your financial aid, if you’ve received any. The last thing you want to do is lose a scholarship because you balked at online learning. Your only two options may be Zoom classes or giving up your spot — and potentially your funding — altogether.

Is there a benefit to taking a gap year?

To that, I’ll say that the student debt crisis in this country is just that — a crisis. Suffice it to say that when you consider the country’s $1.5-trillion student debt total and the nearly $40,000 in loans that every student walks away with, it’s no wonder that 40 percent of borrowers are expected to fall behind on their student loan payments by 2023. And those numbers were arrived at before the world ever knew of COVID-19, before unemployment was north of 11 percent.

So, yes, I think that for the right student, one who elects to spend the year working diligently in a decent-paying job (above minimum wage), while also living as frugally as possible (with parents) and saving money like crazy (by not eating and drinking it all away), a gap year could be an incredible boon to their future.

Every dollar earned during the year represents another dollar that you don’t need to borrow. When a student reduces the overall amount they take out in loans, they’re giving their future selves a true gift. Student loans can stifle futures, and can prevent things like home ownership, and the ability to choose the city in which you live and work based on what you’re passionate about, rather than what’s most affordable.

So, if you take that deferral, make it a working deferral. I can’t think of a better way to spend a year than by freeing yourself of the burden of student debt before you ever even take out the loans.

Is there a cost to taking a gap year?

Yes, in that you don’t want to lose your momentum. While football games are great, the college experience really — truly — is about what you learn. It’s good to stay connected to the academic world, because as much as you may say, “I’ll definitely be back next year,” in another 12 months, there may be a nagging voice at the back of your head wondering, “Really? Because this paycheck is pretty cool.”

During the last conversation I had on this topic, I was asked, “But won’t my job prospects be better if I take a gap year?” The implication here was that if we wait long enough for the economy to bounce back, jobs will abound. But it’s impossible to say how your job prospects would differ if you graduated in three years instead of two, or in four years instead of three.

If anything, the most important thing to keep in mind with a deferral is that your post-college earnings will be delayed by a year, your seniority in the workplace will be delayed by a year and, if you plan to go the grad school route, that, too, will suffer a delay. As much as I wish I had a crystal ball, none of us do. We’ve all got to make the decisions that we think are best for us at the time.

Lastly, I want to note that the financial situations for millions of parents with kids headed to college have changed drastically over the last few months. Students who weren’t planning to work their way through college, or didn’t want to be burdened by a summer job or the endless task of applying for scholarships, may need to re-think those plans.

We’re all living through uncertain times, and we need to wrap our heads around the fact that things will be “different” for the foreseeable future, whether that means a gap year you spend working your ass off or an academic year you spend admiring your English teacher’s kitchen curtains on Zoom.

Author of “Take Back Your Money” and “The Ten Truths of Wealth Creation,” John Girouard is a registered principal of Cambridge Investment Research and an investment advisor representative of Capital Investment Advisors in Georgetown.

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