As colleges figure out how to structure classes this fall, many students are wondering if they should enroll. The idea of taking a year off may sound appealing, but returning students should think twice.
Many colleges have a formal gap year or deferred enrollment policies for incoming freshmen. But returning students who choose to take time off and re-enroll once the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic have passed are not “gappers.” These are “stops” and they face risks that don’t come with a traditional gap year.
The president and founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, Betsy Mayotte, explains that colleges have individual leave and withdrawal policies for students who wish to take leave. Students who do not follow these rules can end up with unexpected debts and be prevented from accessing their transcripts.
“I see a lot of students who just stop going to school and don’t understand why they are being charged,” Mayotte says.
Taking a break from college this fall could derail your overall educational and financial goals. Here’s why you should stay registered.
YOU MAY HAVE TO ANSWER TO RETURN
Unless the college makes concessions, students without approved leave are at the mercy of the readmission policy to determine if they can return. Even with approved leave, you can only miss 180 days in a 12-month period, according to the Department of Education’s Code of Federal Regulations.
“Students need to weigh their options and look at what’s going on at their university,” says Kenneth Stephens, director of the Department of Social Services at Southeastern University in Florida. He notes that while his school has systems in place for students facing the COVID-19 crisis, others are still trying to figure it out.
Some colleges allow students to re-enroll after two years without hassle. But others, like the University of Miami or the University of East Carolina, require students to apply for readmission and pay a fee after missing a single semester of school.
Schools also do not have to readmit absent students. For example, the University of Arizona Graduate College requires re-application, an application fee, and a minimum of 3.0 GPA on all previous courses at the university before granting readmission. And Drexel University in Philadelphia is making it clear that students may have to take additional courses to graduate if the curriculum changes during their stay. They might even have to sign up for a completely different program.
YOU SHOULD MAKE STUDENT LOAN PAYMENTS
If you have student loans, taking time off could start your repayment. Contact your student loan manager or lender to find out their policy.
All federal student loans are subject to administrative forborne until September 30, due to a provision of the federal government’s coronavirus relief program. So, until then, you don’t have to worry about interest or repayments on your loans.
But if you plan to miss the school year, you will run out of that window and payments will start after your six-month grace period ends. While there is speculation that the abstention could be extended, nothing has been announced.
Federal student loans only have one grace period, so if you use it now, you won’t have it after you graduate, says Mayotte.
The coronavirus relief program forbearance does not apply to private student loans. If you decide to quit due to COVID-19, your private loans could enter the grace period and then head towards repayment. And not all private lenders allow postponement of studies for returning students, so you may be forced to repay your loan even when you return to full-time student status.
YOU CAN’T FIND A STABLE WORK
Students who plan to work full time face the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The coronavirus remains a threat and a second wave could cause more closures, which could make finding and keeping jobs even more difficult.
“I’ve had students mention dropping out of school, and I’ve told them they should really think about it,” says Sharon Taylor, director of academic counseling and professional development at Virginia State University. “The first thing they say is they go to work, and I ask them to see how many people are out of work right now.”
Taylor advises students to continue school if they can afford it and says, “Better to wait until the pandemic is over at school rather than outside of school.”
If you want to minimize coronavirus uncertainties with your school, there are options other than opting out altogether.
– TAKE A HALF-TIME SCHEDULE: Students can take fewer classes while retaining some of their financial aid benefits while progressing toward graduation. Not all students are comfortable with online learning. Taking fewer classes will give you more flexibility in case your school closes early to go online.
– TAKE ONLINE COURSES AT A COMMUNITY COLLEGE: If you need to meet general education requirements, you may be able to take them online at a local community college. This way, you can save money on tuition, avoid the unknowns with in-person classes, and qualify for graduation. Before taking classes at a community college, check with your school to make sure classes will transfer and that you are complying with your school’s double-enrollment policies.
– TAKE OFFICIAL LEAVE OF ABSENCE: If you decide not to take classes this fall, work with your school to take official time off. Contact your college to let them know why you want to take time off and when you plan to return. Be sure to ask questions about the implications of financial aid, and try to find exceptions to get more favorable terms with your school and lender. If you have private loans, contact your lender to discuss your leave and ask questions about how this will affect your loan status.