Photo by Sonnie Hiles on Unsplash
Devon Tyrie had a plan for the 2020-2021 academic year. The Massachusetts native wanted to take a gap year between graduating from high school and starting university, combining volunteer work, international travel and internships. But with the world still in the grip of Covid-19, it’s clear her year will not pan out as envisaged.
Tyrie, 18, says she’s had to make a decision based on worst-case scenarios. She’s been accepted by Middlebury College in Vermont, which like many US institutions, has not yet released plans for the upcoming semester. But some higher education institutions in both the US and the UK have already said they will shift to a predominantly online learning environment for part or all of the next academic year. Tyrie says she’s had to weigh up the risks; if she goes straight to college her first year may be far from the traditional experience, yet if she takes a gap year, her activities will likely be limited. In the end, she’s applied for a deferral to the next academic year. “It’s kind of tough right now, not knowing, but I’m doing my best to make a plan,” says Tyrie.
Her reluctance to start her university education virtually is by no means unique. For students, it’s not an attractive prospect, especially given most universities continue to charge full tuition fees. Madelyn Mackintosh, 17, was looking forward to studying physiology and political science at McGill University in Canada. “Five months ago, a gap year was definitely not in the cards,” she says. But McGill is in Montreal, Canada’s Covid-19 hotspot, leaving Mackintosh anxious. Then she found out that McGill was making most of its classes online. “That morning, I wrote to the deferral department and I requested a deferral.”
Taking a gap year between high school and university is fairly common in many parts of Europe, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, the practice is less common, but attracted mainstream attention in 2016 when Barack Obama’s daughter Malia took a gap year before attending Harvard University. Critics point out that the gap year is often an opportunity reserved for the wealthy. Yet the concept – and its pros and cons – is under increased scrutiny now as students all over the world weigh up their options for the year ahead.
In a recent study on Covid-19 and university access, the London-based Sutton Trust found that one in five university applicants (19%) in the UK had changed their mind about university attendance for the 2020 academic year – whether in terms of their preferred university or by deferring a place in favour of a gap year.
In the US, a survey conducted in April by Baltimore-based consulting firm Art & Science Group found that 17% of students had changed their college plans due to Covid-19. Of those students, 16% indicated that they would take a gap year, while 17% said they would wait until the spring semester (which would start in January 2021) to enrol in university full-time. A third said they would enrol in university on a part-time basis.
It’s far from being an easy decision. Gabriel Hostin, 17, had decided before Covid-19 that he would take a gap year before attending Harvard. Now, he says, there are uncertainties surrounding his plans to travel internationally – something he hopes will change at the start of 2021. In terms of the immediate future, he’s looking at domestic volunteer programmes including community work closer to the New York area, where he’s from. For his peers who are going straight to university, he says there’s concern about not being able to be on the campus when the academic year starts. “For me, that’s not college,” says Hostin.
It’s a sentiment that Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney, authors of Learning Innovation and The Future Of Higher Education, understand. But Kim, the director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College, says, “I think you really have to distinguish between true gap year experiences and simply stopping for a year or waiting for a year.”
Kim, whose daughter took a gap year in South Korea through a US-government funded initiative, says that for a gap year to be valuable, it needs to be educational and ideally have a structured component. That’s extremely difficult to do right now, says Maloney, with social distancing rules and travel restrictions likely to be in place for the foreseeable future. Having an unplanned and unstructured gap year that essentially equates to a “leave of absence” can be detrimental to students, say Kim and Maloney, because they’re more likely to lose their momentum and decide not to attend college altogether.
"The good news is there is no wrong decision. The bad news is there is no right decision either,” says Michelle Dittmer, president and co-founder of the Canadian Gap Year Association.
For those who struggle to find meaningful activities, Dittmer suggests thinking about using the skills you have to help organisations that might benefit.