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College or Gap Year? How COVID-19 is Reshaping the Fall 2020 Semester

What if college does not start this fall? What does online college for freshmen look like? Is this going to be an academic gap semester? What are the options for young people to have college classes AND get out of their homes and utilize this moment?

young man learning to rope
image courtesy of Wisdom Ranch

It’s a strong possibility that college will not be “on-campus” in Fall 2020. In fact, there’s even discussion of some colleges skipping Fall 2020 altogether. Some will still host virtual classes for continuing students, but most appropriately fear it won’t be a “real” college experience for the incoming class of 2020. Some parents support their high school seniors in talking about deferring going to college, while other parents mention “they are enrolling regardless because, in the long run, that’s one year lost of post-graduate income.” No matter the parental approach to how to support your student during this uncertain time, there is no right answer. The only plan that could stall an emerging adult is if they stay at home and do nothing.

If your child decides to “go to college” in August, it is going to look very different. Classes will be virtual, student support services will be virtual, and college athletics will be streamed live on television from empty stadiums. This is not forever, but this is definitely what 2020-2021 will look like… Taking college classes from the comfort of their high school bedroom. After a year of lost experiences and a lack of closure on the high school chapter, to say the adjustment will be rocky for incoming college students is an understatement. As the world looks to each college and university president to make an executive decision that protects the well-being of thousands of young adults, the young adults themselves are giving pause to an otherwise predetermined plan.

For those reconsidering enrolling in college for the fall, there are ample opportunities where you can still learn, grow, and launch. There has been a surge in students contemplating taking a gap year. Of course, inaccurate stereotypes surround taking a gap year, and yet exploring “alternative-to-college” options for Fall 2020 will most likely be the saving grace, even more transformational than the iconic shift from home to college campus, to help our young adults regain forward momentum into adult life. Even programs outside of the Gap Year Association are pivoting to help support the demand in gap year opportunities. Wilderness therapy and adventure-based therapy programs are also adjusting to provide support for this population, adrift. The trauma of COVID-19, the grief and loss of canceled high school experiences, and a growing anxiety that a second wave may spike are all reasons why a therapeutic program could be an appropriate gap-year alternative to college enrollment in the fall. I don’t have to tell you that though, just ask your young adult.

young men learning to weld
image courtesy of Wisdom Ranch

Although the expression “college isn’t going anywhere” is actually a moot point now, realistically options for higher education will be available in the future. What will make or break your child from launching into adulthood is how you reframe the change in their plan. Some of these gap year (or wilderness therapy program) options even provide college credit. Or some gap year programs are shifting to provide domestic or virtual opportunities for young people to participate within the safety of their childhood home. There is nothing wrong with working, volunteering, interning, or taking care of yourself, rather than jumping to enroll in a collegiate experience that one will regret immediately.

If your child is reconsidering college given most colleges plan to be virtual this fall, then help them consider a new plan! One possibility is to hire a Gap Year Consultant or Therapeutic Consultant, who may help develop all the options that are available, especially those “diamonds in the rough” that are not official members of the Gap Year Association. There are more options available if we look outside the traditional box of options.


headshot of Joanna Lilley, MA, NCCAbout the Author
Joanna Lilley, MA, NCC, is a Therapeutic Educational Consultant, Gap Year Consultant, and College Success Coach at Lilley Consulting. Joanna received her Master’s in Counseling from West Virginia University. She specializes in helping young adults and families during the most important time in adulthood. She proactively supports young adults with mental health or addiction history who are launching into the collegiate world or reactively provides support when the young adult launches and unravels. Joanna feels strongly about there being no single path to success when launching into adulthood. Outside of work, you can find her paddle boarding or hiking with her canine Office Manager, Luna.