Gap year plans reflect economic disparities

As graduating high school seniors consider whether to attend college in the fall or defer their enrollment, higher-income students appear most likely to take a gap year. A recent survey by higher education consulting firm Maguire Associates indicates that 12 percent of incoming students are considering deferring fall enrollment due to COVID-19 campus closures and disruptions.

Bloomberg Businessweek took a closer look at high school seniors’ “diverging paths,” reporting that those considering a gap year tend to be more affluent and better able to absorb “the expense of taking an extended break before enrolling.” Those same students are also more likely to pay full tuition, meaning that their deferral could deprive colleges of needed revenue at a time of strained finances.

Related: Concerns about fall enrollment give rise to a new recruiting environment >

High-income students considering deferral more than low-income students

Christine Pluta, a private college counselor at Edvice Princeton, told Bloomberg Businessweek that many high-income students are inquiring about postponing, preferring to forego online classes in favor of a “normal college experience” at a later date.

In contrast, nonprofit programs that help high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds prepare for college say that very few clients are looking to postpone enrollment. Prep for Prep, a New York City-based nonprofit serving young people of color, says only one out of 132 graduating high school seniors from its program asked their college for a gap year. College Match, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, says just one of 200 students is considering a deferral request. Furthermore, the organization is advising students to enroll in the fall and avoid any risk of forfeiting their opportunities.

Related: College Decision Day less momentous as COVID-19 upends admissions >

College budgets depend on critical mass of full-pay students

The increased interest in gap years among higher-income students has the potential to disrupt colleges’ budgetary planning. Private colleges depend on tuition and fees for approximately 30 percent of their revenue and, on average, direct half of that revenue to financial aid, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Colleges’ whole funding ecosystem relies on high-income students enrolling on reliable timelines—a delicate balance further thrown off by the fact that 30 percent of international students, most of whom pay full tuition, say they are considering deferral.

“It’s kind of a run on the bank if a significant enough share of the students who can pay decide they’re not going to go,” Matt Maguire of Maguire Associates told Bloomberg Businessweek. “Then the bottom falls out, and how are they going to deal with that?”

Gap year policies vary

As colleges scramble to fill their incoming classes and secure their budgets, they are taking a variety of approaches to gap year policies. Fewer are encouraging gap years or offering financial assistance to do so. Brown University and Cornell University have said they will not automatically approve deferrals. Amherst College is considering limiting the number of gap years it authorizes to preserve enough spaces in next year’s class for current high school juniors. Princeton University may make students who deferred wait more than one year to re-enroll. And some other schools have no deferral option, instead requiring students to either accept their admission offers and attend or forfeit and reapply once the coronavirus crisis subsides.

Topics in this story

Next Up

COVID-19 puts damper on prison-based college programs

For thousands of incarcerated students, the pandemic hasn’t just moved their programs online—it has postponed them indefinitely.