Gap year for some college students
Early reports: Undergrad enrollment drops 2.5%
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.