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Delaying college amid crisis risky

Students who take gap year may never graduate

Chris Quintana

USA TODAY

Northeastern University was a reach for Henry Huynh. The first-generation student from Boston had already been rejected by many of the colleges he thought he could get into. The few that did accept him he couldn’t afford. Northeastern deferred his application.

So he moved on with his life and made plans to attend a local public college, the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

But on March 14, he noticed an email from the university. At first, he said, he was so nervous he couldn’t open it for hours. When he did, he learned Northeastern had accepted him. Even better, the financial aid package would cover his costs.

“Northeastern pretty much changed my life,” he said.

A year later, the coronavirus changed his life again.

Online classes at Northeastern have been a challenge. When the college canceled in-person classes amid the coronavirus outbreak, he hoped he’d be allowed to stay in his dorm. But students were sent home.

On campus, he felt he was learning. Now he feels as if he’s just going through the motions. He plans to enroll in the fall semester – he said his financial aid depends on it – but his heart just isn’t in his online studies.

“I am not learning anything online,” he said. “I am just memorizing stuff.”

For first-generation and low-income students like Huynh, the future was often precarious before the coronavirus outbreak. These students average a lower graduation rate than their more financially stable peers. If they drop out, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars in debt but without the longterm earnings benefits from a college degree to help them pay it off.

For these students, taking a semester or a year off – to work or to wait for a more stable outlook – could mean they never graduate.

‘Just the wrong environment’

Dario Magana Williams wanted to attend George Mason University in the nation’s capital to study business.

So much has changed for the graduating high school senior. During the coronavirus outbreak, his family isn’t bringing in as much money as they used to. And despite colleges’ plans to reopen campuses this fall, to Magana Williams it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll return to a physical classroom soon.

His family decided not to risk spending the extra money for online college classes from a well-known school. But he doesn’t want to take a gap year.

“I feel like if I don’t go the first year, I am going to lose everything I had,” he said.

Instead, he’s planning to stay in Washington and attend the University of the District of Columbia.

Working to keep students enrolled in college has become the top concern for advocacy groups like the District of Columbia College Access Program, which has worked with Magana Williams.

High school seniors now want college options that are closer to home and are cheaper, said Tosha Lewis, vice president of the group.

The staff is also helping those students petition their colleges for increased financial aid. Reworking a college plan is timeconsuming and can be intimidating and confusing, especially for students whose families aren’t used to navigating the world of colleges. Students must reach out to each college individually. And they’ll have to wait weeks before they know if they’ll receive more money.

Making decisions about the fall semester can be even more complicated for students now in college. To start, students say they’re facing an onslaught of doubt that they haven’t really been learning online, despite the debt they’re racking up. Then there are more existential concerns. Some students lacked access to secure housing back home, Lewis said, so being forced to leave the dorms in the middle of the semester proved a problem.

Those are the same worries expressed by the at-risk high-schoolers and college students who work with Bottom Line, an advocacy group that works with students in New York City, Chicago and Boston, including Huynh.

Some students are waiting to commit. Usually by May 1, 90% of Bottom Line’s students have committed to a college. This year, about 3 in 4 had. Many colleges have pushed out their enrollment deadlines beyond May 1, which Colón said is likely playing a role. But students are also apprehensive.

It doesn’t help that students have little clarity on what the fall semester will look like. Even universities in the same geographic area have radically different strategies.

As families deliberate, they’re asking about the possibility of taking a gap year, or if their deposits will be refundable, said Karen Sieben Backes, dean of enrollment College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, a private institution in Minnesota. The concerns are most acute from first-generation or lowincome students who’d be coming from out of state.

The benefits of higher education

William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College in Texas, knows families and students are apprehensive about the fall, and he understands the appeal of a gap year.

Still, he hopes any prospective students headed for his institution avoid it – and not just to boost the school’s revenue. He pointed to a 2011 study of students in the El Paso region. It found that only 1% of students who took time off from their college studies eventually earned a credential.

“I know a lot of people, sometimes they go, ‘You’re only concerned about enrollment,’ ” he said. “No, I’m concerned about the future of these students. I want them to be able to get a credential to be able to reap the benefits of higher education that I have.”

Serrata is seeing signs of declining student interest. On April 20, summer enrollment was down 20% from normal levels. As of last week, it was down only by 7%, which is encouraging, Serrata said. But the trend is still unusual: Students normally flock to higher education when the economy struggles.

“We certainly understand the post-COVID-19 world will be different,” he said. “But one thing that has rung true throughout is that the more you learn, the more you earn, and the less likely you are to be unemployed.”

The campus of Northeastern University in Boston. NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY

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