The uncertainty and anxiety that COVID-19 has wrought on college students and higher education institutions has generated a flurry of articles and conversations about students taking “gap years” as a way to bridge the learning challenge that the virus presents.
But the reality is that this option is a fantasy for the vast majority of students, a distraction from the enormous challenges ahead for those students and their schools.
A widely shared piece in New York magazine featuring an interview with innovator and NYU professor Scott Galloway seems to have fanned the flames of this idea. Recent articles and polls also suggest that that gap years are growing in popularity as a possible option among four-year college students and their parents.
Galloway says that when parents ask, “I tell them it’s a great year to take a gap year.”
Gap years are a longstanding option for an elite tier of students who want to take time between high school and college, or even during their college years, to travel, volunteer, or participate in activities that ultimately supplement the learning that takes place in classrooms.
A gap year is fine if you have the financial resources, flexibility, and family support required. But they are a very narrowly framed tool, mostly targeted at students who attend full time at residential institutions and are in the 18-22 age range.
That’s not at all what today’s college student looks like.
Higher Learning Advocates, a D.C.-based advocacy group, says that today’s students are older, more racially diverse, and have far fewer life options than the mainstream narrative would lead us to believe. Only 13% of college students live on campus, and two-thirds of all students work in order to make tuition payments or other expenses. Two in five students are over the age of 25, and a quarter of all college students are parents themselves.
The “gap” that should be getting more attention right now is the growing gap between white students and students of color when it comes to the pandemic’s impact.
Forty-one percent of minority high school seniors say it’s likely they won’t go to college at all in the fall or that “it’s too soon to say.” That compares to 24% of white high school seniors.
And the pandemic’s impact on people of color has been widely reported. Black Americans account for 34% of confirmed cases and 21% of deaths.
Students who make the choice to delay college entry immediately after high school are at considerable risk of not completing a post-high school degree or credential, according to a National Center for Education Statistics study.
And most students who do so tend to come from high-income backgrounds — more than 70% of “gappers” have parents with incomes over $200,000 a year, according to a 2015 report.
American higher education faces an enormous set of challenges in the coming months. Decisions about whether to return students to campus are complicated — and constantly changing as new information emerges about the virus’ spread. To date, a number of schools have proclaimed that they fully intend to open come fall if at all possible, while others — most notably the California State University System, the largest in the nation — have announced that they plan to do most or all learning online.
Higher education also is uncertain about how much to charge students in this unknown new world, and whether to offer tiered or conditional tuition options depending on what kind of learning they can offer. And colleges and universities face an incredible set of ethical and moral challenges associated with the uncertainty — literal life-and-death decisions.
There are many thorny issues ahead for American higher education. As a key driver of the nation’s economic and social progress and an important generator of both talent and new knowledge, higher education must confront the increasingly complex future of human work. Today’s students need every opportunity to gain access to the learning that these schools offer — whether online, in person, or in some hybrid way. But gap years are not a viable solution for the vast majority of today’s students. They need to be moved to the fringes of the debate about college student options for this fall.