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Some College-Bound Students In The U.S. Are Thinking Of Taking A Gap Year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

High tuition, restrictions on travel, a potential fall semester online - these factors are forcing many college students and their families to rethink their plans. Some students are wondering whether they should go to college this fall at all. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher ed and joins us now to talk about this.

Hey there.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: With so many questions about what the next school year might look like, it does sound like a gap year would be tempting. It also sounds like it could be awfully difficult to pull off.

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's right. Well, traditionally, a gap year is a structured year between high school and college when students travel or volunteer or do an internship. They're for the most part - are formal plans, so they have a clear end date. Students request to defer their enrollment from their college. And in exchange, their spot is held for the following year.

People who work in admissions have seen these requests go up in the spring, and they expect more in the summer. But of course, things like international travel and in-person programs might not happen because of the pandemic. It's also really important to make this distinction between a planned gap year and delaying enrollment or taking time off before starting college.

KELLY: And why? Is there a difference in outcomes between a planned gap year and just deciding, I'm going to go away for a bit?

NADWORNY: Yeah, research has shown that those who do a gap year - so that's the specific time away with a clear enrollment plan - they do really well when they get to college. They tend to be whiter and wealthier and have highly educated parents. At the same time, we know that for many students, when they simply delay enrollment or they put off college to work to save money, the longer they wait, the harder it is to get a degree. And that's especially true for low-income students.

I spoke with Abby Falik about this. She runs an organization called Global Citizen Year, which is trying to reimagine who gets to take a gap year.

ABBY FALIK: All of our associations about it being sort of exclusive and elite are also really problematic because this type of experience frankly can be the difference-maker in a young person's trajectory. It can build confidence and motivation - whole set of things that then allow you to get to college better prepared to persist and complete.

NADWORNY: She says this is why it's so important to make sure that this idea of a purposeful step away but then ultimately toward college is accessible to students from lots of different backgrounds and different income levels. Her organization provides funding for students, which she says is key.

KELLY: All right. OK. So here we are. I'm a college student. I'm thinking about my plans come fall. What are my options, Elissa?

NADWORNY: So there are national service programs like AmeriCorps and City Year. They employ high school grads to work at nonprofits and schools. There's a bipartisan bill in Congress that would expand the national service programs due to the pandemic. Some folks are calling this the CoronaCorps (ph).

You know - but lots of families have also thought about community colleges, right? Like, those are the cheaper option. They're often local. They have strong ties to industry. So they're clued in to kind of the job market, what's happening on the ground. And community colleges can be a great pathway to getting a bachelor's degree. I think, you know, the thing here is that whatever students decide, I keep hearing from advisers and counselors that they just need to make sure that there is a plan to get to graduation.

KELLY: Have a plan. OK. Some guidance there from NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Thanks so much.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.