In summary

There is a drawback for taking a gap year – a gap year delays the longer-term investment higher education helps a student make.

By Vincent J. Del Casino Jr., Special to CalMatters

Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at San José State University, provost@sjsu.edu. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters

In the midst of this pandemic, college-age students and their families are considering what to do next fall. The most interesting question posed to me is: should I take a “gap year”? 

The idea of the gap year is not commonly discussed in the United States as it is in other parts of the world. Look abroad and you’ll see hundreds of 18-year-olds from Europe backpacking for a year and picking up odd jobs. Others take gap years to work in an industry and find a career. The truth is,  the gap year has often been the purview of the more privileged. 

But now, under COVID-19, the term “gap year” is taking on new meaning. It has broadened to “taking time off” until higher education can reset and re-establish its more traditional face-to-face role. 

There is a gaping hole in gap year thinking, however. 

While higher education might not be perfect in the fall of 2020 because it needs to teach more classes remotely, reduce face-to-face interactions or limit large events, it is still one of the best investments that can be made in one’s self today. 

I don’t just mean economically – I mean emotionally and socially as well. After all, when else do you get the opportunity to ask big questions, challenge new ideas or think through the future of the world and our place in it in a safe and engaging environment with your peers. 

For weeks, every university and college has been poring over fall scenarios. Like many campuses, San José State University is developing a multi-pronged approach to support student learning in a way that provides maximum flexibility. 

First, we are working on a robust training and support programs for faculty this summer. Many faculty members did amazing work this spring, but now they need help extending their learning into new ways of doing remote, online or hybrid education. On our campus, nearly 400 faculty have signed up in the first 24 hours of open enrollment for our summer institute on online learning. 

Second, faculty and staff are putting together programming that allows students to maintain strong social connections to the campus through virtual or appropriately socially-distanced activities. 

Third, students are working together to think about how their activities and collective work will continue through the long-term of COVID-19.

New and returning students are better off moving their education forward and should take advantage of these new and creative approaches. There are those that come from situations, whether it be wealth or another reason, where the pandemic will have a limited effect on their lives. But many others will be significantly impacted, and higher education can help mitigate those negative effects. 

After all, this is what higher education does. For millions of first-generation and underrepresented students enrolling in higher education systems, such as California’s public universities and colleges, taking classes this fall will help them navigate the uncertain path laid out by this pandemic. It will provide tools they need in this new digital age to move on in a career after COVID-19 has been managed. And, it will enhance the life journey by connecting them to communities that facilitate lifelong learning.  

There is no greater equalizer than a university degree. A gap year in uncertain times does not meet the current needs of most students. Instead, a gap year delays the longer-term investment higher education helps a student make in their professional and personal lives as citizens. 

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Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at San José State University, provost@sjsu.edu. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters

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