Nationwide, more students decided to take a gap year in the 2020-2021 school year than in previous ones, according to the Gap Year Association. But while some students decided to opt out of their school year, a few historically Black colleges did not see a significant number of students do the same.
A gap year has long been an opportunity for individuals to deepen their self-awareness through experiences, according to Ethan Knight, founder of the Gap Year Association. Many have aimed to do this through travel, volunteer work and other activities prior to enrolling into post-secondary education or entering the workforce.
But the COVID-19 pandemic complicated things. The pandemic not only put a halt to international travel, but put most in-person activities at a standstill. This forced some students to take time away from school to forge their own independent experiences, Knight said.
At Howard University, less than one percent of new undergraduate students “requested something similar to a gap year in the 2020-2021 school year,” said Anthony Jones, assistant vice president of enrollment management. A majority of these requests were for financial reasons. Others cited health concerns.
“Frankly some of them just needed to be closer to home and needed to pay more attention to their family because of the health conditions or economic conditions in their household and how involved they were in being able to stabilize that,” Jones explained.
While North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University saw no significant uptick in students taking a gap year, many new students decided to join the university in the spring rather than the fall due to the pandemic, according to Jaqueline Powers, associate vice provost for enrollment management. This resulted in a 3% increase in overall enrollment in the spring semester.
Director of Undergraduate Admissions Jameia Tennie wrote in an email the pandemic resulted in “different circumstances related to making post-secondary education decisions.”
“There was a large amount of uncertainty that existed across the U.S. that caused many students to delay education decisions until more clarity was revealed around the global health crisis,” she wrote.
Fisk University has seen enrollment and admission numbers “hold steady” over the past few years, President Vann Newkirk said. Less than 5% of new students have tended to opt for a gap year in previous years, he said. That number could decrease in the next school year.
“We pride ourselves on being a university that is small and face to face and that we have hands-on experiences,” Newkirk said. “With the vaccine and all of that happening now, I think we’ll see less than 3% of students seeking (a gap year).”
While these schools didn’t see a surge in students taking a gap year, the story wasn’t the same for the University of Illinois at Chicago. About 400 students deferred admission to the spring or fall of 2021 at the university, according to Kevin Browne, vice provost for academic and enrollment services. Only a couple dozen students typically took a gap year before the pandemic.
“Prior to the pandemic, you either needed to have a reason along the lines of going into the military or you had a formal gap year program, like spending a year with the Peace Corps or with Teach U.S.,” he said. “But for the fall of 2020 it was, “if you don’t think you’re ready to come back we’ll accept that and we’ll defer you.”
Most students cited reasons related to the pandemic as to why they wanted to take time off, Browne said.
“Family lives changed, businesses shut down, student’s financial situations were changing dramatically and no one knew what things were going to be like,” he said.
Browne said no student he knows of has taken a gap year characterized by travel.
“A lot of students didn’t do much of anything. It was a matter of waiting for this to lift,” he added.
However, there were still some students who decided to travel despite the pandemic, Knight said. Some popular international destinations were Israel, Ireland and Costa Rica.
“Not all (trips) have gone smoothly, like Israel has been on lockdown for a good bit of it but students were able to get out if they really wanted to,” he added.
Some students have spent their gap year doing remote activities.
Najla Edwards, a Chicago native who graduated from Northern Illinois University last spring, is looking to go to grad-school sometime in the fall or spring of 2021. But until then, she has focused on her YouTube channel and editing videos. She’s also used her time away from school to try out different jobs. One of these jobs saw her working at a plasma donation center. “It was really just a time for me to learn on my own and take things slow,” she said.
Qijaana, 22, (who refused to give her last name) took the spring 2021 semester off at Prairie State College, and has focused on her spiritual health. This came after she experienced a traumatic event in her sophomore year in high school, when she was robbed at gunpoint. This event paired with suffering from “psychological trauma, verbal abuse and emotional manipulation for years” impacted her performance in school.
That’s why she decided to take the semester off and focus on healing. She’s spent time doing bible studies with her mentor and attending church. She also is a frequent writer and makes sure she eats healthy foods. “The time off has been valuable for my mental space,” she said.
Knight said he thinks the surge of students taking a gap year is going to continue to increase. “A lot of people out there are starting to question things,” he said. “A bachelor’s degree used to be the required ticket to success. But now people are starting to understand that that’s just one of many other pathways. They’re saying ‘maybe I should figure out which path is right for me before I drink the Kool Aid© that college is the right path for all students.”