It was only November when Hannah Book, 18, a high school student in Bryn Mawr, Pa., was accepted to her first choice, Emory College in Atlanta. “I got accepted early decision,” she said. “I was really excited, and my mom and I jumped up and down. I felt like all my hard work had paid off in that moment.”
But that day, when she had clarity about her future, now seems worlds away.
It’s become increasingly clear that she probably won’t have a traditional college experience in the fall. “I read this piece written by the president of Brown University, and she talked about all the different social distancing policies that colleges would have to install,” Ms. Book said. “The social environment that comes with college is so important to me. Now I don’t know what to do.”
She is thinking about taking a gap year and looking at the different activities she could do. “I contacted the Biden campaign, but there aren’t a ton of things volunteers can do online,” she said. “I’m thinking about trying to volunteer in my area at food banks or other places around town.” But she’s not sure if this will be possible, either.
With the June 1 deadline quickly approaching to ask her university for a deferral, Ms. Book is choosing between committing to an unknown college experience that could be remote or gap year programs that may not materialize.
“Senior spring is supposed to be this carefree time when you have your future planned out in front of you,” she said. “I am so worried I am going to make the wrong choice, and I am very overwhelmed by it.”
“I don’t want to have a lost year,” she added.
Many high school seniors who plan to attend college, already mourning the loss of their high school graduations, are now facing a Hobson’s choice. They can commit to going to college in the fall, though it may be virtual, or they can opt for a gap year, with limited opportunities.
“I’ve had gap year conversations with most of my seniors, which is unheard-of,” said Phoebe Keyes, the senior college admission adviser at Empire Edge, a tutoring company in New York City. “They are all waiting to pull the trigger until they know what is going to happen in the fall.”
“Our website is going bonkers,” said Ethan Knight, the executive director and founder at Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that helps connect recent high school graduates to experiential learning opportunities. “We have a list of 350 college deferral policies, and page views have gone up 250 percent from the same time last year.”
For Ms. Book, a gap year is something she never considered in the past. “I am someone who has always looked forward to college,” she said.
But for Devon Tyrie, 18, a high school senior who lives in Needham, Mass., and was accepted early to Middlebury College, the idea is appealing. In the spring of her junior year she completed the Island School, which takes students to the Bahamas to learn about marine and environmental science.
“The experiential learning really resonated with me,” she said. “It was a way to learn that I was a lot better at and is a lot more interesting than what I was doing in school. It opened my eyes to traveling before college.”
Before coronavirus Ms. Tyrie had been considering heading to Madagascar or Indonesia, to study marine conservation further. “What attracted me about a gap year was the opportunity to travel and explore and go on adventures,” she said.
Throughout the spring she has worked with Jane Goldstone Sarouhan, a founder of J2Guides, a gap year counseling service, to come up with other options. Ms. Sarouhan is encouraging all her clients to come up with Plan A (the optimal plan, with no restrictions and the entire world available), Plan B (some restrictions, like remote programs first semester and domestic travel second semester) and Plan C (a fully virtual program) in areas that interest them.
“I’m trying to really get students to look at what they achieve from their gap year,” Ms. Sarouhan said. “If a student wants to gain fluency in Spanish or get an internship in business, OK, we can do that virtually.”
Ms. Tyrie has found conservation programs that haven’t been canceled in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, which may be exciting, but they are both up in the air.
“A few months ago I was choosing between going to college, which was super-awesome, or going on a gap year that was super-awesome,” she said. “Now I am choosing between not knowing what college is doing or not doing what I am doing in the fall for a gap year. I don’t want to just be sitting at home all year doing online things.”
She recently submitted a request to Middlebury to defer until the fall of 2021, and she is waiting to hear back from the dean of admissions.
Mr. Knight has been working with many organizations that are trying to get creative during the pandemic. Some are postponing start dates, maybe starting in October, not September. Others are shortening programs to bring costs down during hard economic times.
Some groups are planning on starting the year with remote learning and then transitioning into domestic travel with small groups. All participants will quarantine for two weeks before the program begins.
Janak Bhakta, 17, a high school senior in Tustin, Calif., was planning on spending next year working with a jaguar rescue center in Costa Rica. Now he’s looking at heading to Yosemite National Park instead to work with the wildcat population. (So far the program hasn’t been canceled.) “I realize you don’t get an opportunity to do something like this often during your life,” he said. “I still want to take that opportunity.” He will be attending Denison University after his gap year.
Some, though, have resigned themselves to staying on schedule.
In the past, Marco Tonda, 17, who lives in Sonoma County, Calif., considered doing a gap year at an anthropological site in Spain. But now he has decided to attend Reed College in Portland, Ore.
“I think at this point I would rather just get it over with and go for the online classes,” he said. “Maybe they will come up with a cool way of doing them.” (He said he has struggled with doing remote learning for high school. “I loved all my classes before quarantine,” he said. “But now whenever I am in class I feel very tired and can’t concentrate properly.”)
Mr. Tonda knows his decision will require patience. “When I visited Reed before the quarantine, I loved the atmosphere, I loved Portland, I loved the people I met,” he said. “I am very excited to go there, and I know I will be there in person eventually.”
It’s a choice his mother, Ana Keller, a winemaker, supports. “The certainty of having somewhere to go or something to do is very valuable,” she said. “The certainty of college is something we can count on right now.”
There is another group of parents who may be cheering on that decision: those of current high school juniors. They are afraid that if too many people defer college, there will be fewer spots for their children who are applying in 2021.
“If too many people don’t go to school until next fall, the pool will double,” said Heather Riggs, who lives in Wagoner, Okla., and has a daughter who is a junior. “How hard will it be for people to get into college with twice as many people applying? How many people will be in the pipeline for how many classes?”
But Ms. Riggs, who is retired, also has a daughter who is a college freshman. Originally, if classes would be online, she was encouraging her to take a gap year before heading to the University of Oklahoma for her sophomore year.
“The entire college experience is what you pay for,” Ms. Riggs said. “It’s about growing up and learning and making friends.” More recently, however, she and her daughter decided she will be heading to college in the fall.
Ms. Keyes, the adviser, said a lot of parents are struggling with the idea of their children taking college classes remotely. “Parents remember their own college experience, especially the early days of orientation, meeting friends, and moving into the dorms, so fondly that they’re sad their kids might miss out on that,” she said. “They are mourning the potential loss of that.”
But for the children, there may be something unforeseen to be gained. “Kids seem a little more excited by remote learning or taking a gap year,” Ms. Keyes said. “They are open to trying something new.”