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In normal years, most undergraduate admissions offices deal with relatively few requests from incoming students to defer admission. This is not a normal year.

It’s too early to know if formal requests to defer admission will increase, but college admission officers and college counselors alike report many more inquiries about deferrals from students and parents who are unsure whether their chosen colleges will resume in-person classes and normal (or seminormal) campus operations this fall.

High school seniors are “thrown off” by the idea of possibly having to start college online, said Ibrahim Firat, an independent college consultant.

“What I have heard from these seniors is, ‘I’ve been sold on the college experience before I chose to attend this particular college. If I’m not going to have that experience for the first semester or even probably the whole year, then what’s the point of paying full tuition to sit at home and watch videos all day?’” he said.

“In prior years, I had very few students elect to defer matriculation and pursue a gap year,” said Laura George, an independent college consultant.

“In the past six weeks, I have observed a significant increase in these types of questions, as parents and students contemplate the potential reality of starting their college careers online,” George said. “For current seniors and their parents, the many uncertainties about the safety of living on campus in tight quarters and attending classes in close proximity to tens or hundreds of students causes concern. For others, the idea of paying full tuition for remote learning instead of the expected in-person, on-campus experience does not make practical or financial sense, particularly for those who have lost their jobs or taken significant pay cuts. As such, parents are increasingly asking about viable options for next fall.”

Colleges vary in their deferral policies: some have a policy of granting a yearlong deferral of admission upon request almost automatically, while others review requests individually and approve them based on a consideration of their merit. Some institutions are more or less agnostic about the reasons students defer as long as they don’t enroll as a degree-seeking student elsewhere, while more selective colleges say they'll only grant deferrals if students can demonstrate a plan for a meaningful alternative work, travel or volunteer experience, or if they have reasons related to a military service commitment or illness. More than half a dozen colleges contacted by Inside Higher Ed say they aren’t changing their deferral policies at this point. But they will be managing competing goals in the months ahead.

“Everyone in an admissions office right now is trying to bring in a class and meet their institutional goals,” said Jayne Caflin Fonash, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and an independent college consultant. “If there are decisions made to increase the number of defers that they offer or change any of the policies about the criteria those students need to meet, I think that will all be considered on a case-by-case basis, trying to strike a balance between keeping the best interests of students in mind and the institutional goals of bringing in a new class.”

“If there is a significantly higher number of those requests, schools are going to have to decide what they’re able to do and if they’re going to put any limit on those spots. That will be a varied school-by-school decision,” Fonash said.

Gap Years or a Community College Option

Admission professionals are trying to build their classes in unprecedented circumstances. A survey of more than 2,000 college-bound seniors released last week by a higher education research and marketing company, SimpsonScarborough, found that one out of 10 students who planned to go to a residential four-year college before the pandemic have changed their plans. Nearly half of these students plan to attend a community college, and about a third plan to enroll in an online college.

The survey also found increased interest in gap years, which a report on the survey results notes, would “create myriad challenges for higher ed,” including “the impact on tuition revenue for this fiscal year in addition to the housing, advising, and scheduling complications that will be created by a surge in the freshman class for Fall 2021. Many colleges will not be able to approve all the deferral requests, piling bad will for the institution on top of the hit to enrollment.”

Other evidence suggests that interest in gap years -- typically a structured year between high school and college when a student pursues travel, volunteer service, paid work or an internship opportunity -- is spiking. Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, said the association has seen a 65 percent increase in page views of its website.

“I think many families are turning almost to desperation, ‘OK, we’ll take a gap year,’” said Jason Sarouhan, a gap year consultant. He said in a typical year, most students who wanted to potentially pursue a gap year would have already given the option serious thought by this point in the spring, but this year, “we are being flooded with inquiries from students who never considered a gap year in their life.”

But if in-person learning options are constrained this fall, options for how to spend the gap year could be limited as well. International travel might not be a guaranteed or ideal option, much less a safe one given the uncertainty about when the global pandemic might be contained. That's assuming such travel is within financial reach; for many students or parents, it is not affordable.

The consulting firm Sarouhan co-founded, J2Guides, has been organizing workshops for students on what to do if their ideal gap year program or ideal college is not available. Sarouhan said gap year programs that might be comparatively more likely to operate this fall would be those that are based in the U.S. with a built-in isolation component, something like a wilderness expedition program. He said there's also a lot of interest in virtual internships, as more and more companies have converted them to online or remote opportunities to ensure social distancing.

A more accessible option for parents who can't afford to subsidize a year of travel and don't want to pay full tuition costs for a college that may start the fall semester online is to think locally.

“Postpone your freshman (or sophomore) year at the university and enroll at your local community college, taking 30 credits of general education classes over the course of a year,” Matt Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, wrote in a recent post. “Then, in a year, when the whole virus situation has settled, return to the university and transfer those 30 credits there.”

Reed described this alternative option as a "visiting year."

“‘But wait!’ you say. ‘What about the college experience?’” he wrote in his blog, “Confessions of a Community College Dean.” “If you’re sent home or have to stay home anyway, then the experience of taking classes online from home won’t be notably different. Except, of course, for the tens of thousands of dollars you stand to save.”

But enrolling full-time for a year at a community college is not compatible with deferral policies at many colleges that bar students from enrolling as degree-seeking students at other colleges during their deferral year, or that cap the number of credits they can earn elsewhere. For example, some colleges cap that number at six, others at eight or 12. Taking more credits than allowed could mean having to reapply as a transfer student, which can have implications for eligibility for institutional aid. Analyses by Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on student aid, have found that students who transfer tend to get thousands of dollars less in institutional grant aid.

Still, faced with the possibility of another online semester or year, Reed thinks that students who planned to attend relatively unselective four-year colleges won’t be deterred if they have to turn down (rather than defer) an admission offer and reapply as a transfer if that means they can save money on the first year of college.

“I think a lot of schools are going to have to loosen up their policies on transferring credits because this is going to become very common,” Reed said.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Washington University and the parent of a high school senior, said his son wrote to all the colleges where he was admitted and inquired about deferral policies. With the exception of one college, the institutions all responded that they would discuss deferral options once he accepted their admission offer and that there needed to be a good rationale for deferring.

"I think the subtext was a good rationale is not that you don’t want online instruction," Gusterson said.

The View From the Admission Office

Just how flexible colleges will be in addressing deferral requests may depend somewhat on how many requests they get.

Jerome F. Dueweke, interim director of admission at Butler University, a private university in Indiana, said Butler received slightly fewer deferral requests compared to this time last year. But the university, like more than 400 others across the U.S., pushed back the deadline for confirming enrollment from May 1 to June 1, giving students more time to make decisions about enrolling or deferring.

“I think we’re all holding our breath to see what happens over the coming three, four, five weeks coming up to June 1,” he said.

Corry Unis, vice president for strategic enrollment at Fairfield University, a Jesuit university in Connecticut, said families are thinking through all the possible scenarios.

"I don’t know if we’re going to see a big increase in students asking formally for these options," he said. "I don’t anticipate a significant number, but we’ll work with every family, like we always have."

Raul Fonts, an associate vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, said the college usually gets between five and eight deferral requests every year. “The question is, is it going to go from five to eight to 25 to 50? I don’t think it’s going to be that drastic, but I think it’ll be more than what we’ve traditionally seen,” he said.

“If you told me it would only be 16 instead of eight, I’d say we’ll probably be pretty flexible and allow it, but if it’s 50, then we might have to have another conversation about letting every single one do that. That has implications on our fall enrollment.”

Some highly selective colleges that have the luxury of drawing students off wait lists have indicated they’ll be generous with their deferral policies. Cornell University announced that it wait-listed more students than usual this year and would be “very, very generous with our deferral options."

Williams College, in Massachusetts, has communicated to admitted students that it “has a flexible gap year policy and you should have every expectation that your request will be approved.” Williams said that if it has not made a decision about fall operations by June 15 -- the normal date for requesting deferrals -- it will push back the deadline for requesting deferrals until one week after the decision is announced.

“We don’t expect a dramatic shift, but we know that there are some populations of students for whom enrolling on campus in the fall would be a challenge even if we were to open,” said Sulgi Lim, Williams’ director of admission. She noted, for example, that international students might not easily get visas, as the U.S. Department of State has suspended routine visa processing at embassies and consulates around the world.

Greg Orwig, the vice president for admissions and financial aid at Whitworth University, a Christian institution in Washington State, said the deferral requests the university is getting are "entirely based on uncertainty and anxieties around the coronavirus."

He said admissions officers are telling families, "It’s simply too early to know for sure what the fall semester might look like either in terms of health risks or in terms of alternative educational platforms or pedagogies. So if the reason you’re thinking about deferring now is because you don’t want your son or daughter to start a college education with online courses, we just don’t know yet whether that’s going to be the case, and we’ll work with you to extend deadlines to have as much time as you need for those uncertainties to be clarified.”

Orwig noted another downside of deferring that some students may not be considering.

“We want to minimize the number of students who wind up not pursuing or completing college, and then there’s the opportunity cost,” he said. “A student who defers a year is trading one year of postcollege earning potential for whatever income or experience they would be able to have in the year ahead. And that should be a trade-off considered with great care.”

Roger J. Thompson, vice president for student services and enrollment management at the University of Oregon, is hopeful that most students will ultimately choose to start on time.

“I think students and families are ready to close the chapter on high school and begin college,” he said noting the proms, graduation ceremonies and other milestone events of the senior year of high school that were canceled across the country to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

“My sense is students and families are going to shift quickly to college,” he said. “We think people might be considering other options and considering things they hadn’t before, but taking a year off -- I’m not sure what you’re going to do with that year. If the virus is forcing universities to go remote, you’re not going on a plane to Barcelona.”

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