College Disrupted – A Pandemic Gap Year Could Cost You $90k

90,000 is definitely a chunk of change. Find out how delaying college can cost that much or more, and what to do about it.

A diploma sits on top of 100 dollar bills and a graduation cap nearby.

What do you like to put off? Work? Chores? How about college? Because of the pandemic, more and more college-aged kids decided to delay starting their freshman year. There are a lot of reasons for this; some would say that in-person learning, surrounded by like-minded peers in the pursuit of…education? Partying? Both?… is an integral part of the college experience.

Others might say that there’s no substitution for that once-in-a-lifetime feeling of arriving on campus, meeting new friends as a newly minted first year, making those pseudo-Harry Potter dreams come true. But what are the costs of delaying matriculation by a year? Turns out it’s about $90,000 in lifetime earnings, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Let’s talk about what all this really means for prospective college students, especially in a pandemic, and how indecision about college doesn’t just mean “free time.”

Hundred dollar bills chained to a set of books.

What the Data Says

(It’s always a numbers game!)

The Federal Reserve of New York found, as reported by CBS News as well as a number of other sources, that when college students graduate at the typical age of 22, they begin earning an average of $42,000; when they hit age 25, they earn $52,000 on average. However, when college is delayed by only a year, i.e. starting work at 23 and not 22, the average salary is $49,000 when they hit the same spot at age 25.

Put simply, because those who delayed college are always a year or two behind their peers in work experience, they can expect to fall behind in earnings as well, especially since “wage increases are steeper at the beginning of young professionals’ careers,” per CBS News. And this doesn’t just stop after you enter your 30s or 40s. The delay can impact your whole career “all the way to retirement age,” again, per CBS News.

An article from Inside Higher Ed from May also points out two 2005 studies that “suggested that students who delay enrollment are 64% less likely than their ‘on-time’ peers to complete a bachelor’s degree.” This data may be surprising, but it indicates clearly how important it is that students enter college as soon as they’re able.

A 2015 Fact Sheet from the US Department of Education makes clear how paramount higher education is and will continue to be in the United States: “Higher education is no longer a luxury for the privileged few, but a necessity for individual economic opportunity and America’s competitiveness in the global economy.” College graduates with a bachelor’s degree “typically earn 66% more than those with only a high school diploma,” according to department data.

A man bored during the pandemic, watching TV.

What About During the Pandemic?

(You get a pandemic! You get a pandemic! Everyone gets a pandemic!)

You might be wondering whether all this data holds true, even with the pandemic. And it does seem to. According to USA Today, “the pandemic has made a college degree more valuable, not less.” This is partially due to the fact that many of the jobs high school graduates take before heading to college, or in lieu of attending college altogether, aren’t as viable during the pandemic.

Not only that, the pandemic actually has even more of an effect than you might think. Many high school students pursue a gap year; sometimes these are sponsored by different organizations promising the trip of a lifetime; sometimes these are indeed valuable service opportunities that can ground eighteen-year-olds and expose them to more of the world. But in either case, the opportunities have dried up alongside global travel and the omnipresent possibility of exposure to COVID-19.

This means that a gap year now often consists of lounging around the house, munching on whatever’s left in the pantry or fridge, and hanging out with your friends, either via video-conference apps, or in-person (and thus spreading coronavirus). So what’s stopping you? Get on that education grind; while school is online you can get the boring or simply prerequisite classes out of the way and save the fun, interesting classes for the eventual return of in-person learning.

A girl and her dog lay in bed while doing online classes.

So What Can You Do Instead?

(Time to think outside the box; or maybe inside the box, if that box was a computer screen?)

According to predictions by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2020, newsletter, “70 percent of all jobs will require some education beyond high school” by 2027.

Perhaps you were entering college as an undeclared freshman, with no clue as to what you wanted to study or take classes in. If so, then this is a perfect time to enroll, not even necessarily at the college you planned on attending. Community colleges across the country offer classes in a wide array of subjects, giving you a chance to figure out what interests you. It’s also an opportunity to get ahead of the curve of those peers that decided to take a year off and not do anything at all.

All that being said, finding the right program, college, or degree can be confusing, especially now when tours and visits are off the table. One way to figure out your career, education, and life goals is a personality test, like Myers-Briggs, to determine what sort of paths may be right for you. I’ll suggest Career Coaching tools, which allows students to see all possible doorways and windows open to them. With such a tool, you can explore career paths, take an assessment that will help guide you, and even craft a resume after making a profile. We truly do live in the World of Tomorrow.

This kind of strategy even works for those of you who are looking for a change during the pandemic; maybe you already attended college, but want more, or maybe you never got the chance and are excited to learn, but don’t know the next step. A Career Coach tool can analyze all that needs to be analyzed and help you make a personalized choice. After all, what works for one person won’t work for the next.

Ben Franklin, on 100 dollar bill, wearing a mask.

Wrappin’ It Up

The old adage “there is no free lunch” rings true here. That year you’re spending off from college, not traveling because of the pandemic obviously, isn’t just free time, as I said at the beginning. What the data from the New York Fed shows is the “free time” is actually costing you earning potential over the course of your lifetime.

It goes without saying that none of this is ideal. No one asked for a global pandemic. But this is the world we’re currently living in. So the best course of action is in fact to make the most of it, start your college journey and build up your credits.

That way you can enter and exit college ready for whatever life throws at you next. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, founding father, inventor, and the face of the $100 dollar bill: the only sure things in life are death, taxes, and crazy, totally unexpected, wildly insane, mind-blowingly weird things happening.

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