Traveling student taking a gap year perhaps part of the double-class. Potential impact on student success.

Student Success and the Double-Class Year in 2021

As institutions navigate their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion around the wisdom of a “gap year” for high school seniors before starting their college experience next fall. No – this isn’t an article about whether or not one should take a gap year. Rather – this article plays out the longer-term student success implications for those students who do choose that option. If more students take a gap year now than have in the recent past, we will have what I’m calling a “Double-Class” Year in 2021. Thus — higher education leaders will need to be thinking about student success and the Double-Class year in 2021.

Gap Year Student Data

As a data strategist and strategic researcher, I believe data and information are key to making good decisions. So, I wondered how many students typically take a gap year. It is estimated that about 3% of students take a gap year. However, the Gap Year Association notes that the accuracy of this figure is unclear. These data are captured only after students begin college, and some take a gap year but never choose to attend college. A new concept, playing off of the Gap Year is a Boost-Year.

The Gap Year Discussion is Everywhere

Not surprising, different institutions are planning for different fall scenarios – some online, others face-to-face, a mixture – and then some are undecided. And most high school seniors had a sudden and dramatic transition to online learning in March, and may not want to begin their college experience online. As a result, discussions in higher ed news circles have noted a potential increase in graduating high school students taking a gap year. On a personal note, I have a number of friends and colleagues with graduating high school seniors now considering a gap year, who had not been before. So, the conversation about gap years feels like it is everywhere.

Traveling student taking a gap year perhaps part of the double class

There are many benefits of a gap year under normal circumstances:

  • Time for personal growth or travel
  • Opportunity to get work experience (for financial reasons or to confirm career interests)
  • Chance to relax and take a break from academics

But many of these traditional benefits, may not exist this year due to COVID-19.

What does one DO with a Gap Year During a Pandemic?

So, this curious strategic researcher began to wonder – What does one DO during a pandemic gap year? The traditional benefits such as traveling, exploring, or working may be severely limited or non-existent due to COVID-19. Some sources have outlined what a student could do with a gap year 1) under quarantine and 2) without a quarantine. However, neither set of plans resembles the ideal gap year that prior high school graduates have enjoyed.

For example, getting a job as part of one’s gap year is going to be nearly impossible when the country is experiencing the highest unemployment rates since the great depression. So, best to cross “get work experience” off the list as an option. Even volunteering will be difficult with continued social distancing in practice and lots of unemployed people looking to volunteer.

Of course, travel options too may be limited in the coming year as many countries have imposed severe travel restrictions. And some experts warn that Americans may not be welcome in other countries for some time. Even if travel becomes possible, recommended social distancing measures might make these experiences less enjoyable and rich than in years past.

Let’s Play Out the Gap Year

Ok. So, let’s play this out. A student makes the decision to take a gap year. And let’s assume the student figures out something to do with their time. Again – lots of articles are out there on this topic. I won’t summarize those here. Instead – I want to go in a different direction. I want to talk about what happens AFTER the gap year.

“Double-Class” Year

What would a double-class in 2021 mean for higher education institutions and students? What are the unintended consequences that we (students, families, higher ed leaders, faculty, etc.) should consider if a gap year is more popular than usual this year?

This is an image of a crowded college dining halls could be the result of a double class

Here are a few:

  • Two graduating classes will want to begin college in Fall 2021. Do we anticipate that students graduating next year (in 2021) will take a gap year at the same rates of the class of 2020? Probably not. So—what does this mean? Rather than competing for a seat in college courses with one single graduating class – students will compete with two classes. Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 will be submitting college applications at the same time for the same Fall 2021 start date – a double-class. Yes – most students have already applied to college and they may have elected to take a deferment. But what if the ‘gap-year-goer’ decides they want to apply to a different set of colleges that they had yet to apply to – say, closer to home? Thus – it will be tough to get into some colleges because there are more students in the market.
  • More competition for everything else in college. When there are more students searching for college, and the number of seats are reduced, there will simply be more competition for everything. EVERYTHING. Student government positions, parking, housing, majors, and clubs/organizations to name a few. Just because there will be more demand for college in Fall 2021 doesn’t mean that institutions will scale up accordingly. It doesn’t make financial sense to hire permanent full-time faculty and staff for a one-year surge. Additionally, with some colleges closing already (and surely other closings soon to come), there wi
    ll be fewer seats available. And institutions which do survive the next year will likely have reduced their capacity due to the smaller Fall 2020 class.
  • Which job market would you want to be part of? This is the biggie. Let’s say a student took that gap year and started in Fall 2021. She earns a bachelor’s degree in four years, and graduates in Spring 2025 with the “Double-Class.” She now will be competing in both the job market and graduate school with A LOT of peers. Meanwhile, the Spring 2024 graduates – the students who started college in Fall 2020 — had a much smaller graduating class to compete for jobs, internships, graduate school, etc.

This image is a hand with a pen over a notebook writing "My plan." Planning is an important part of student success.Student Success in the Long-Term

The idea of taking a gap year sounds great on the surface. But, there could be many unintended consequences that permeate throughout a student’s college experience, especially if it results in a double-class. No one wants to be in this situation. And we are all eager to find some new normal (whatever that may be). But isn’t it better to get started in college sooner than later (assuming that going to college was part of the plan before the pandemic)?

What if there are other challenges for students who might defer plans until Fall 2021 that we haven’t even thought of yet? Will students regret taking a gap year? To be clear – I’m all for a gap year if it makes sense to you. But it’s important to consider all the ramifications when making the decision – not just short-term planning. And there needs to be a realistic idea for how to use the year. Life is short – make every year count!

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