March 2020 was a shock. Colleges shut down around the country in the wake of COVID-19. For many students, the coronavirus made the spring and summer 2020 school terms extremely difficult. Even the most flexible students (and their professors) found it hard to suddenly switch to full time online learning successfully.
Now as you face more of the same with the fall/winter term, you might not want to return to online or even hybrid classes. A gap year – a full 12 months spent finding yourself before returning to school – sounds inspired.
Unfortunately, it’s not a great idea.
Under different circumstances, a gap year might be just what the (academic) doctor ordered. Truly productive gap years can include immersive travel, volunteer opportunities, military service. and apprentice-style work experiences. However, because of the ongoing pandemic, gap year experiences like that either won’t be available or simply won’t be the same.
Sure, you can take a year off from school, stay home, and spend your time playing video games, but that kind of gap year doesn’t usually yield a lot of benefits. Like sabbaticals, gap years should allow you to learn something new in an unfamiliar environment.
Don’t give up on the idea of a gap year altogether – but maybe reconsider the timing. Here are 6 reasons you should stay in school now and put off your gap year until we have an effective coronavirus vaccine.
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1. Traveling will continue to be limited and difficult
One of the most popular gap year activities is traveling. Backpacking or exploring another part of the world on your own, with friends, or as part of a volunteer or work experience, can be life changing. Not only are you learning about other cultures, but you may also be picking up valuable language skills.
Travel in the time of coronavirus, however, is not easy. Several countries have travel restrictions in place for Americans, and these are constantly changing. Even if you make it to one country, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to return home as scheduled or even to visit another country. And if you have to quarantine upon arrival, that means spending two full weeks in isolation.
Getting sick abroad is a nightmare all its own even in the best of times. Now, it's that much worse. Not all travel insurance companies will cover you in the event you get sick with the coronavirus while traveling. That's because contracting COVID-19 is now considered a known and foreseeable event. If you're not covered, the medical costs could be as catastrophic as the illness itself.
Even if you plan to travel within the United States during your gap year, you may have to quarantine when you cross state lines. You’ll also find a lot of changes in most cities as everyone adapts to life under the pandemic. Closures, cancellations, and restrictions won't allow for the kind of experience you would have otherwise enjoyed.
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2. The job market is bad
Let’s say you ruled out travel and decided maybe you’ll use your gap year to get work experience. Well, there’s more bad news: The job market is weak right now, with the unemployment rate one of the highest since World War II.
You may find work in the service industry; however, you’re unlikely to find a job that will allow you to get experience in your desired field. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a cashier or restaurant server – it’s just that you can do that work part-time while attending school.
Internships and apprenticeships still exist, but most of them will be remote. Your chances of finding a good opportunity are likely better if you can work with your academic advisor and your school’s career services center.
In other words, if you can financially swing it, you are better off to stay in school and work part-time. Even college graduates with years of experience are looking for jobs right now, which means you are competing with a highly trained and educated segment of the working population.
3. Your future wages may be impacted
Heading out into the workforce right now – in a deeply uncertain market which is driving wages down – might mean you'll be forced to accept low wages. This is especially true for workers without college education, working personal service jobs, and jobs in retail and security. Unfortunately, research shows that when your wage at any job starts low, your salary can remain stagnant. You may think that doesn't apply to you, because you plan to return to school after your gap year.
But there’s a catch. A Florida State University study found that community college students who take a break from school are less likely to finish. And since we know that a college degree is a good indicator of earning potential over a lifetime, that gap year could cost you millions: College grads earn $30,000 a year more than people with just a high school degree.
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4. Interest rates are historically low (and that won’t last)
Maybe you haven’t spent a ton of time looking at rising and falling interest rates. But you need to know that interest rates right now are extremely low. That means now is a great time to take out financial aid for your education and lock into a low-interest rate.
Similarly, if your parents are homeowners, they should look into refinancing their mortgage. What they save in interest over a lifetime could potentially fund a major part of your college education.
If you take a gap year now, you may come back to a very different financial situation. Loans might be harder to get, and interest rates may have returned to normal.
5. Tuition rates are certain to increase
Colleges are facing difficult economic decisions because some students aren't returning to school this year. Many institutions are substantially cutting tuition rates, with some by as much as 30 percent. For some colleges, especially private schools, that’s going to eventually mean a rebound hike in tuition in order to stay solvent.
Of course, if you’re starting or continuing at a fixed-price college, your tuition won’t change. Even if the school increases tuition for incoming students next year, you’ll keep your same tuition along with your financial aid package.
If you don’t know your school’s policy for fixed-rate tuition, talk to your financial aid advisor. You can also consider a prepaid tuition plan – just make sure it's guaranteed by your state government.
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6. Your mental health might suffer if your gap year is a bust
There's another reason to stay in school: If your gap year doesn't work out as planned, it might be hard on your mental health. With nowhere to go and unable to find a meaningful job, you might end up feeling disconnected and unmotivated. Even your hometown friends might be little solace if you can’t get together or do the things you would normally do.
Staying in school is the best way to ensure that you have a built-in community. Your online experience last year might have felt lonely, but schools are working hard to find ways to build more student connections in hybrid and remote classes. You’ll probably return to more small-group work and activities. These promote mental health and well-being by virtue of social interaction.
Remember, your gap year will be waiting for you when the coronavirus is better under control. Until then, staying in school is the best way to remain on track with your education and career goals. Almost everything in the world is uncertain right now, but your degree shouldn’t be.