Gap Year? Or Is it “COVID Melt”?

White male in button up shirt, standing in front of a bookcaseK12 and higher education are buzzing with how the college matriculation and decision-making process have been turned upside down this summer. The headlines all highlight the headwinds and challenges for students: How will families meet the costs of college during our economic crisis? Will students be able to live on campus? Will classes be remote or in person? Will campuses even be open? It’s a lot for students and families to navigate on their own. And, it is the counselor’s role to help minimize the stress and streamline accurate information for students to be educated decision makers.

With this in mind, it is troubling to read how conflated the idea of a “gap year” has become with the concept of a student “stopping out” or taking a year off. The Gap Year Association defines a gap year as, “A semester or year of experiential learning, typically after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.” The data and benefits for students taking a gap year are proven and clearly researched for those new to the concept. I agree that students have much to gain from this time away from their studies: personal maturity, experiences that will enhance their classroom learning and career development, global learning, and extending their network beyond their academic environment. No question, this is all great for students’ self esteem, self confidence, and self efficacy.

But we need to be careful in mistaking a gap year for what is really a student making a decision to not enroll in college for reasons that we as counselors can help them resolve. I’d urge us all to be very thoughtful about how we present “time away” from their studies. Let’s pull back the curtain, and take a closer look at gap years, and how to help student decide and plan for those opportunities.

Gap years still keep an educational plan in mind. They take careful planning, require financial resources, different information centers for programs, and careful guidance from mentors that have a strong understanding about how these experiences will shape the individual student. It is a process; it is definitely not something that should be planned in the spring of senior year. For those who want to add new tools to their toolkit, it is worth it to take the time to study the plans that the Gap Year Association lays out on their site. I would look to answer these two questions:

  1. What needs to be considered in the decision to take a gap year?
  2. How do you support the student before, during, and after their gap year?

Too often students and families from systemically underserved populations do not have the “college knowledge” to ask the right questions or advocate for themselves on the right path forward. Students rely on trusted sources, like their mentors, to learn about all their options. We also know that for these same students two things can happen. Either they never start college or they can “stop out” of their college, and it is very difficult for them to jump back into their studies for a variety of reasons: costs, work, family, and finding the time for school to fit their new lifestyles. Those in education have traditionally called this “summer melt” for students who never matriculate, but this year it may be exacerbated into what some are referring to as “COVID melt”. To mitigate “COVID melt,” counseling/advising teams can implement the following strategies:

  1. stay connected with students who are in danger of not enrolling in college;
  2. use early alert systems to track summer melt activities and events with students throughout the summer;
  3. establish an organized and sharable tracking system for program advisors, using a platform like myOptions Encourage (launching in September 2020); and
  4. build a relationship and stay in close contact with one person in the college admissions office and student services office.

We need to take back the narrative and keep our community aware and educated about “COVID melt” in order to best serve students, especially those in high needs situations. This important distinction between “gap years” and “COVID melt” will help us track student decisions and build in better early alert systems to intervene and ensure students are educated decision makers, and that they go to college. All our teams’ tireless dedication of hours, days, and years to ensure that each student is successful in life depends on our ability to help students gather the right information to make life choices like these.