Najifa Hossain -- September 19, 2020

As the semester began to kick off in mid-August, students all across the nation were faced with an imminent question: Is it worth going back to school this semester?

Among the millions of service workers, educators, and other professionals having to re-orient their work life over the past few months, students have also been making changes to their academic plans as schools implemented hybrid or completely virtual classes. According to Guild Education senior strategist Michael Horn, Harvard and MIT (among other universities) offered incoming Fall 2020 freshmen deferred admission to give them the option of taking a gap year. Though most universities are supporting remote learning efforts to make it accessible to as many students as possible, many are re-framing gap years as an opportunity rather than a loss. As Horn later mentions in his article, it is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore the effect these past few months have had on their generation. From a global pandemic to national protests to potent climate change, this is a defining era that demands innovation, creativity, and cooperation more than ever before. Students are constantly exposed to a wide array of problems and situations that extend well beyond the classroom, and many academics and employers are realizing the power of their potential.

Given this outlook, it’s no surprise that the startup sector swept in. Over the past few months, many have made creative efforts to recruit students that they anticipated would take gap years. According to Fox Business, venture firms like Contrary Capital are even hosting entrepreneurship contests with funding awards for students who start companies this year.

Characteristically, many businesses within the tech sector saw the disruption from this pandemic as an opportunity to innovate. One such company even created an entire platform to match startups with student talent as seamlessly as possible (see Seedstages). In a post-pandemic world, initiatives like these will likely guide the new normal; with more exposure to flexible, determined students, startups and small business ventures will undoubtedly recognize the potential of their demographic as a whole. On the flip side, students will also get a real taste of work that directly reflects their career interests in an environment that gives them the leeway to learn, lead, and collaborate.

How do the advantages of taking a gap year compare to learning in a virtual classroom? According to the Gap Year Association’s 2020 National Alumni Survey, students who took gap years reported experiencing professional and personal growth critical to their career success today. The association also summarized research findings from The Characteristics of ‘Gap‐Year’ Students and Their Tertiary Academic Outcomes, noting that “taking a gap year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution”. For many students, the decision to take a gap year will reap far more than financial benefits.

It’s safe to say that a world of working from home and donning a mask as we head through the door is not what we had in mind for Fall 2020. Unpredictable times call for unpredictable decisions; it likely wasn’t a part of any hopeful college freshman’s plan to defer something they’d been working toward for years. But for many, it was necessary. For many, choosing to take a gap year over enrolling in school virtually saved money, helped them guide their career interests, connected them with valuable skills and people, and above all, gave them an opportunity to make their mark on the world.

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