Coronavirus and Your Money: Special Coverage

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By Joanna Nesbit
April 17, 2020
Arad Golan Coll for Money

With the novel coronavirus creating uncertainty around a traditional campus experience this fall, some high school seniors are considering postponing college for a year. Curtis, a New York City senior, is excited to put down a deposit at the Northeast liberal arts college that accepted him. But he’s not sure fall 2020 is the right time to start.

“If I’m paying a lot of money to go, I would want to have [in-person] teachers to help me, and be able to make connections with other students,” he says. He’s putting all gap ideas on the table but is considering looking for a local internship, possibly in city planning.

Curtis—who didn’t want his last name published as he decides whether to enroll—isn’t alone. According to a late-March survey by SimpsonScarborough, a marketing and research firm, about 20% of its high school respondents planning on enrolling in a four-year college say it’s likely they’ll change their plans due to the coronavirus. A Carnegie Dartlet survey of nearly 5,000 seniors revealed that confidence about affording college is down.

College officials, meanwhile, have started talking publicly about contingency plans if they’re unable to fully open campuses in August or September.

If you’re considering a gap year because of the coronavirus, here’s what your family should know.

Not All Colleges Grant Gap-Year Deferrals

Many colleges value gap years for students and will grant a one-year deferral, either through a standardized institutional process or on a case-by-case basis. Generally, students accept an offer of admission, submit a deposit, and then request a deferral that typically requires approval. Schools might require a written request or ask for an outline of plans to be submitted.

Some schools, however, require students to reapply the next year. The Gap Year Association’s list of colleges’ policies is a starting point, but you should confirm the policy with your college.

Kent Rinehart, dean of admission at Marist College in New York doesn’t think schools will limit the number of gap year deferrals because of the coronavirus even if there’s a surge of interest. “I don’t think we want to get into the position of punishing students for making a decision that’s best for their emotional comfort and physical comfort,” he says.

Will Your Financial Aid Package Change If You Defer Enrollment?

Some schools hold scholarships and financial aid for deferred students, but policies vary, so ask about the financial aid consequences of deferring. Even if a college guarantees the same merit scholarships for next year, need-based aid is usually recalculated annually with the FAFSA, says Jill Desjean, policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). The same goes for the CSS PROFILE, a financial aid form used by some private institutions. That means your aid package could change if your finances do, and families need to fill out financial aid forms again during the gap year with 2019 tax returns.

Can You Earn College Credits While Taking a Gap Year?

If you’re thinking about enrolling at a nearby community college while waiting for a residential campus to get back to normal, you’ll need to reconsider. While some colleges will allow a class or two, most colleges require students to reapply as a transfer if they take classes for credit during time away. “When a student takes a gap year, they are agreeing to not take any academic classes during that year,” Rinehart says.

If you have to reapply as a transfer student, that can affect financial aid awards and access to frosh resources. A traditional gap year means a student commits to exploring something outside academics, such as working at an internship or a job, volunteering, or traveling. It doesn’t generally include being a student at a different institution.

How Are Gap Programs Adapting for the Coronavirus?

With the uncertain coronavirus timeline, official gap programs are adjusting to accommodate safety precautions, including by shortening programs. Some travel or volunteer programs start in summer or fall but “many are pushing their start dates back and they’re changing their refund policies,” says Rae Nelson, Gap Year Association board member and co-author of Gap Year American Style.

Programs are also considering different types of opportunities, including online or remote options and short-term opportunities. Shorter programs could also cost less. “They’re looking at how to make those as experiential and engaging as possible,” Nelson says. If you’re considering a gap year for financial reasons, you don’t have to pay for a formal program. You can create your own, like Curtis plans to do.

Tips for Having a Meaningful Gap Year Experience

For the best kind of gap year, determining your “why” is key, Nelson says. In a normal year, experts say a good gap year might include two to four experiences with at least one structured experience that includes a peer group and mentoring from group leaders.

However, this year, when so much is uncertain, it could look very different. Instead of a semester abroad, a student could work through the fall at home and find a short-term domestic program for the spring after coronavirus restrictions have lifted. Or you could pick a cause you’re interested in and volunteer with a local organization, maybe WWOOFing on a nearby organic farm for a month or two, for example.

As the economy has been upended, maybe your “why” means working full-time to help with college bills. “The reason a student is taking the gap year should match what they’re ultimately doing during the year,” Rinehart says. If it’s for financial reasons, then Marist would expect a student to work and save money, not travel abroad, he says.

To brainstorm some goals, use the Gap Year Association’s planning guide. If finances are tight, look for scholarships to help (start with the Gap Year Association) and ask about financial aid from specific programs. Gap consultants can help too, Nelson says. There’s an upfront cost for outside help, ranging from an hourly fee to $500 to more than $2,000, though some offer sliding scale discounts according to financial need. But it could save money in the long-run, since consultants have contacts and resources to help you find opportunities. They are actively tracking options for the future, Nelson says.

Experts encourage students not to rush their college enrollment decisions as the coronavirus timeline continues to emerge. “Once a student decides to take that gap year and they let the college know, then they’re pushed off for the year,” Rinehart says. If you have second thoughts a few months from now, your spot will likely be gone. He recommends depositing and requesting a deferral down the line, even during summer, depending on institutional policies.

But if you’re undecided about enrolling in the fall, it’s worth exploring gap ideas now, Nelson says. “There are thousands of options out there.” Just make sure to create backup plans.

More from MONEY:

Student Loans and the CARES Act: Here’s How Coronavirus Relief Will Actually Work

Here’s How College Admissions Are Changing This Year—And What High School Seniors Need to Know

Companies Are Now Getting a Tax Break to Help Employees Pay Down Student Loans During Coronavirus

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