Gap year for some col­lege stu­dents

Early re­ports: Un­der­grad en­roll­ment drops 2.5%

USA TODAY US Edition - - NATION’S HEALTH - Lind­say Sch­nell

When Han­nah Hy­att imag­ined her fresh­man year at Clem­son Univer­sity, she had a clear pic­ture in mind: crisp fall morn­ings hus­tling by Bow­man Field on her way to class, hang­ing with new friends at her dorm and Satur­days spent at a packed Me­mo­rial Sta­dium, cheer­ing on one of the best col­lege football teams in the coun­try.

Be­cause of the COVID-19 pan­demic and the re­lated eco­nomic col­lapse, Hy­att, 18, is in­stead 250 miles away in Charleston, South Carolina, nan­ny­ing for a 5-month-old baby girl, af­ter de­fer­ring her en­roll­ment.

“It’s so weird,” Hy­att said. “I thought I’d be sur­rounded by a bunch of peo­ple my age, but in­stead I’m hang­ing out with a baby all day. I do like change, but I’d pre­fer to not be a year be­hind ev­ery­one else.”

Hy­att de­cided to de­fer at the end of June. She was worried about the economy – she couldn’t find a sum­mer job, and she’ll pay for school her­self – and po­ten­tially bring­ing the virus home to her mom, who works at a nurs­ing home.

Self-iso­lat­ing in her house while she stud­ied on­line didn’t sound fun, so Hy­att opted for a gap year.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Stu­dent Clear­ing­house Re­search Cen­ter, early in­di­ca­tions are col­lege en­roll­ment is down across the coun­try. Over­all post­sec­ondary en­roll­ment is down 1.8% com­pared with last year, and com­munity col­leges see the big­gest drop – a de­cline of 8%, ac­cord­ing to data re­ported as of Sept. 10.

Un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent en­roll­ment has slipped 2.5%, ac­cord­ing to re­ports from the ini­tial 22% of schools that shared data with the Clear­ing­house. As more data rolls in, Doug Shapiro, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the re­search cen­ter, isn’t sure what to ex­pect.

“If it stays at here, I think a lot of peo­ple will be say­ing, ‘Well, it’s not as bad as we feared with only a 2.5%

de­cline,’” said Shapiro, who ex­pects data from 50% to 60% of col­leges for the cen­ter’s next re­port in mid-Oc­to­ber. “But within that 2.5% av­er­age, there’s a lot of stu­dents and in­sti­tu­tions who are al­ready in great need.”

Col­leges lost bil­lions of dol­lars when they put classes on­line this spring, re­fund­ing room-and-board pay­ments and buy­ing tech­nol­ogy for vir­tual cour­ses. They spent bil­lions more on tech­nol­ogy, pro­tec­tive equip­ment and so­cial dis­tanc­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions to re­open cam­puses this fall. Many were look­ing at deficits for the fall, even if all their ad­mit­ted stu­dents showed up.

“Th­ese are al­ready in­sti­tu­tions op­er­at­ing on very thin mar­gins, strug­gling to sur­vive,” Shapiro said.

Com­munity col­leges have been hit par­tic­u­larly hard, which is un­usual dur­ing times of eco­nomic un­cer­tainty. Of­ten, re­ces­sions send peo­ple flock­ing to com­munity col­leges to pick up skills for new jobs.

But this isn’t like eco­nomic down­turns of the past, said Martha Parham at the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­munity Col­leges.

En­roll­ment is down 7.5%.

“It’s con­cern­ing, to say the least,” Parham said.

Stu­dents of color at com­munity col­leges were hit the hard­est: Black stu­dent en­roll­ment de­clined by 12.1%, His­panic by 8.3% and Amer­i­can In­dian and Na­tive Alaskan by 7.7%. (White en­roll­ment is down 9%.)

“The pan­demic makes it dif­fer­ent,” Parham said. “The com­munity col­lege stu­dent is gen­er­ally older. The ma­jor­ity of them work. … Many are lower-in­come work­ers. If faced with, ‘How am I go­ing to put food on the ta­ble?’ ver­sus tak­ing a class at a com­munity col­lege, we know what the choice is.”

Un­cer­tain when re­ces­sion will end

Dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion of 2008 and 2009, it was clear the im­pact would be deep and felt for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. Add a pan­demic, Shapiro said, and “there’s a much greater level of un­cer­tainty about how long it’s go­ing to last.”

Not ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion is strug­gling. State flag­ship schools have been do­ing par­tic­u­larly well: The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madison, for ex­am­ple, has its sec­ond-largest fresh­man class in school his­tory.

Stu­dent fi­nan­cial aid needs at UWMadi­son have been com­pa­ra­ble to last year, but fi­nan­cial aid direc­tor He­len Faith said her of­fice has “pro­cessed more ap­pli­ca­tions for pri­vate loans al­ready this year that we did all of last year.”

“Par­ents and stu­dents are plan­ning more and think­ing a lot more about hav­ing a safety net,” she said.

One ma­jor is­sue: the lack of stu­dent work-study jobs be­cause most cam­pus of­fices are closed.

Stu­dents are look­ing for ways to fill that gap, she said, not just fi­nan­cially but also on their re­sumes.

An­other place where en­roll­ment is up: Grad­u­ate schools are see­ing 3.9% more stu­dents this year, the Na­tional Stu­dent Clear­ing­house re­ported. That’s com­mon dur­ing re­ces­sions.

Even so, some stu­dents have de­ferred.

James Keller’s goal is to be the direc­tor of cho­ral ac­tiv­ity at an es­tab­lished univer­sity. To do that, he’ll need a mas­ter’s in cho­ral con­duct­ing, a de­gree pro­gram he was sup­posed to start this fall at Louisiana State in Ba­ton Rouge. He planned to go di­rectly from his col­lege grad­u­a­tion in May to LSU. An on­li­neonly or hy­brid model didn’t ap­peal to him.

“I’m sup­posed to be singing, con­duct­ing choirs, do­ing pri­vate lessons. … But you can’t con­duct large-scale re

hearsals over Zoom,” he said. The un­cer­tainty of the aca­demic year weighed on him. “I didn’t know what it would take to shut ev­ery­thing down – one case? One case in our pro­gram specif­i­cally? I don’t want to take out $50,000 in loans with­out know­ing.”

He’s heard from friends who de­cided to at­tend in per­son, and they’ve shared sto­ries of choir prac­tice spaced out in park­ing garages, which doesn’t sound fun to him.

He’s tried to main­tain his craft, con­duct­ing record­ings in his bed­room and work­ing with a vo­cal­ist and play­wright to com­pose mu­sic for an up­com­ing one-woman opera. But it’s not the same, and the dis­ap­point­ment weighs on him.

“It’s re­ally rough. … I’ve got­ten to the point where I un­der­stand all I can do is wait, and hope,” he said.

‘This is all of our first pan­demic’

Keller is op­ti­mistic that a year off won’t dis­suade him from earn­ing his mas­ter’s de­gree. He plans to en­roll next fall.

“Th­ese are cal­cu­lated de­ci­sions, big life mo­ments we’re try­ing to nav­i­gate at a time when out­side cir­cum­stances are mak­ing it very, very hard,” he said.

When Hy­att told fam­ily and friends she de­ferred her en­roll­ment at Clem­son, some scoffed at her de­ci­sion.

“There were a few older peo­ple ... who were more tra­di­tional, say­ing I needed to ‘go to col­lege right now or else,’ ” she re­called. “And it’s like, ‘Well, guys, this is all of our first pan­demic. We can’t re­ally go with tra­di­tion right now.’

“Back in the spring, I would have said a gap year was not an op­tion for me. But if I’ve learned any­thing through this, it’s that you’ve gotta go with the flow, or you’re go­ing to drown.”


Ge­or­gia Col­lege and State Univer­sity fresh­men Ash­lynn Anglin, right, and Meghan Mur­phy walk on cam­pus.


Stu­dents walk by Clem­son Univer­sity’s Me­mo­rial Sta­dium in South Carolina. In the football sta­dium, there are dis­tanced fold-up seats set by vol­un­teers from the ath­letic depart­ment and stu­dent or­ga­ni­za­tions.

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