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Challenge: Back to School 2020

Dear parents of college freshmen: A gap year might not be so bad

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Dear parents of the Class of 2024,

As the fate of the 2020-21 school year hangs in balance, you and your student are faced with an even more fraught decision than the typical, stressful college choices. The big question weighing on families: Should you send your child to college during a pandemic, or should they defer and take a gap year? Likely, you have already made that decision or will very soon and if it’s taking a gap year, well, that’s ok.

Until there is a vaccine, dorm and on-campus college life will be too risky for some families. For others, economic uncertainty and an unstable job market has left many families unable to afford tuition this year. In fact, a recent study found that more than half, or 56%, of college students said they can no longer afford their tuition, and just about half of all undergraduates said they need to figure out a new way to pay for school.

Before COVID-19, tuition inflation, decreasing enrollment and emerging online alternatives were already causing strain on the higher education industry, and families were asking themselves whether it was worth it to take on upwards of six-figure debt. Right now, more considerations are being taken than ever before by families about ways in which their student can gain fulfilling experiences away from a college campus.

Whether your student decides to get a full time job or take online classes, they should make the most of this next year. If you’re looking for some more structure for them so they have a fulfilling gap year that stays with them through whatever life throws at them down the road, consider these four strategies.

1) Have them set clear, challenging goals for the year. It’s important to set goals about what they want to get out of this year and what they will take from it. Setting goals is a lifelong skill that will take them far beyond their gap year and throughout their personal and professional lives. A good technique for goal setting is the SMART method (specific, measureable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). It’s a method that many use in their careers as well. This will help them step out of their comfort zone and will make them hold themselves accountable to do something that they’ll be proud of. A gap year will be fun but also difficult at times. They should be prepared to show some grit and vulnerability, both will serve them well in the long run.

2) Keep a journal. A gap year is a once in a lifetime opportunity to expand their worldview and remember this moment in time. Through journaling—which has been found to boost mood, enhance sense of well-being and even help to improve working memory—your child can exercise their creative writing skills while capturing this experience and where the year takes them.

3) Stay connected and form new relationships. This year will provide them flexibility to tap into their personal networks while exploring others’ networks. Think about who in your personal network that you could connect them with to discuss career ambitions, challenges they are likely to face, advice on starting a job or following a passion. “It’s all about who you know,” cannot be understated and will always be relevant, especially post-pandemic when normalcy resumes. This is an opportune time to help them find a mentor and someone that they can create a connection with who can provide coaching, instruction, comfort and accountability.

4) Exercise their brains. Just because your student isn’t in college balancing courses across subject areas, doesn’t mean they should stop learning. Instead of taking 10 courses like a traditional school year, they have an opportunity to concentrate and focus on something they are truly passionate about or interested in. Learn a new language or dive into a subject area that hasn’t been offered in their school or learn a new skill or start a new hobby. There are tons of free and affordable online resources and even hiring a tutor who can teach them and guide them through lessons will be invaluable.

With recommendations and information coming at you and your child from every direction, especially from those in academia, I hope these strategies will provide a source of encouragement for your family about how a gap year can actually be a life changing experience—for the better.

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