Gap years may be a consideration for more students post-COVID. For undergraduate students, the future of their higher ed experience is looking different, to say the least. Uncertainty surrounds what their return to school will look like in the fall. In 25.9% of U.S. students, that uncertainty has planted the seed of considering a hiatus from school next semester.

The gap year is an approach 3% of American students take before starting college. The Associated Press reports that 30,000 to 40,000 students take advantage of a gap year each year. 2015 showed a 22% increase in students taking gap years over the previous year. But the pandemic’s impact on education is making gap years during college a consideration for more students already enrolled in higher education. 31.3% of students said COVID-19 has decreased their outlook on the importance of education either slightly or moderately. A number of students dealing with isolation, low motivation and high stress are considering reevaluating their four-year plan.

Gap year: the implications

Taking a gap year during college has pros and cons for a student. A lot of this depends on the route the student takes: a “year off” or “year on.” A “year on” might include traveling, working, gaining new perspective and embarking on new adventures. A “year off” might equate to a whole lot of watching Netflix and eating takeout on the couch. Gap years during college can reignite a fire for learning and provide experiences for a student to grow as a person. Or, they can backfire and deter the student from coming back to finish their degree.

Gap years can negatively affect retention rates. Students who finish their first year have a relatively high retention rate for the following three years. 72% for public state schools, and 80.4% for private colleges and universities. Because freshman retention rates reflect on the school, getting freshmen engaged in their first-year experience is key. 

Gap year prevention: engaged students stay enrolled

Freshman year, especially when spent living on campus, sets the tone for the following three years. It’s generally the year you find your tribe, get involved, and create a home away from home. A student who dives in and engages with the first-year experience will find a sense of belonging in the place and the people. A student who watches from the sidelines won’t develop that connection. Giving first-year students information about virtual clubs and organizations they can join and virtual events they can attend will help them find their people while off campus. A student who feels like they belong will want to return year after year and will be less likely to consider a hiatus or gap year, even amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19. 

Higher education institutions that prioritize events for first-year students facilitate this sense of belonging. Stay consistent with planning socially distanced events for first-year students, helping them feel less like they’re in it alone. A strong university community can break through geographic boundaries and keep freshmen feeling like they found their home. Keep it lighthearted and bring students together virtually through events like these 53 virtual activity ideas. For students who do decide on a gap year, schools should have systems in place to guide them through their re-entry strategy and how to catch up. This will help them feel less overwhelmed or like they’ve fallen behind, and make them more likely to come back.

A home away from home

Although COVID-19 has caused a percentage of students to consider a hiatus or gap year during college, being proactive as an institution and focusing on the first-year experience can preserve retention rates. What makes a school a home away from home? The bricks in the building? The meet-ups on the quad? No, the people and the memories you make with them are what makes college special. And not even a global pandemic can stop that.