As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise around the country, colleges are preparing for a return to learning this fall, prompting students to consider what they truly value about the college experience and decide whether the year will be worth their energy, time or money.
Many Stanford students are considering taking leaves of absence in light of the proposed plan for the 2020-21 academic year, which is looking like a virtual model with only a few classes being offered in-person. While initially committing to invite frosh, sophomores and new transfer students to campus in the fall, Stanford walked back that plan, now hosting only students whose petitions have been approved to return to campus due to special circumstances.
“After we had a full virtual spring quarter, I did some overall reflecting on how the quarter went, how much I learned and just the overall experience,” said Jacob Neidig ’23. “That was when I really started to consider taking time off.”
At Princeton University, matriculated students were sent a survey asking if they would take a leave of absence if in-person learning didn’t resume. In the end, 63.4% of students said they “would seriously consider” that option.
With the majority of classes being taught online, students have concerns about whether this year is worth it. Many students are worried that the quality of their virtual education will not match that of in-person learning.
“The quality of instruction [was something that] I personally struggled with last year,” Neidig said. “Going from in-person to virtual was a pretty drastic decrease in the amount of information that I was understanding.”
“The pandemic has affected the academic year, especially in terms of most classes being offered only online,” said Louis Newman, the dean of academic advising. “Some students will likely choose to wait out the pandemic and return to active status until the situation returns to normal.”
Some classes are much harder to take online than others, students say. Students who experienced those difficulties in the spring may not want to go through that again, said Zach Witzel ’23, who plans on taking a leave of absence. Witzel will be pursuing a research internship in computer science.
“I would be mostly taking STEM-based lecture classes, but if you are in an English discussion class, you’re probably going to have a significantly worse time over Zoom,” he said.
According to the University, faculty have spent the summer creating a “rich academic experience” for the next year, “building on everything [they] have learned from the online experiences of the spring quarter.” Though they are committed to supporting students who continue next quarter, the school “appreciates that some students may wish to consider altering their plans.”
“Going to Stanford is a great opportunity, and there’s so much learning and opportunity finding that happens outside of the classroom, so I don’t really want to waste a year doing it online,” said Bennet Liu ’23, who is considering a leave of absence.
Campus events and parties will be restricted next year, and face coverings are required in public. COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and isolation will also “become a regular part of student life.”
“The academic experience on Zoom is fundamentally flawed — no amount of summer planning will fix it. More importantly, the social experience will be non-existent,” said Rahsaan McFarland ’25, who is taking a gap year to tutor elementary schoolers. “Stanford is a wonderful place — don’t get me wrong. But this year, the Stanford experience will be a shell of its typical self.”
Ethan Knight, the director of the Gap Year Association, said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education that his website has seen a 380% jump in searches of its program directory compared to last July — and that those numbers are predicted to continue growing as colleges solidify their plans for the fall.
“I think that from my freshman year, even though it was cut short, a lot of what made Stanford and college so worthwhile was being able to connect with people and do things with them,” Neidig said. “With the way the pandemic is going and the plans that Stanford has announced, the next academic year is going to be a really tough situation.”
With so much of the college experience being based on social events and human connection, the return to campus will be far different than in previous years, said McFarland.
“Even if on-campus instruction begins in limited capacity, the hallmarks of the frosh-year experience will be absent. I would be robbed of awkward orientation events, dorm parties, fountain-hopping, anxious meals at Lakeside and much, much more,” he added. “My first experience at Stanford should not be wasted away in front of a computer screen.”
Stanford also does not plan on discounting tuition this year.
“Stanford tuition is heavily subsidized by the University,” according to the Re-Approaching Stanford website. “The price of tuition does not cover the full cost of the education at Stanford. Effectively, all students, including those paying full tuition, receive a significant discount relative to the university’s actual cost.”
Still, for many families, a virtual quarter may no longer be worth the money.
“I’m a first-generation college student, and I’m the oldest child in my family,” Neidig said. “The things that I would be losing in a virtual or extremely restrictive campus situation had to be compared to the sacrifices that my family had to make [for me to receive this education].”
Even for students who are able to pay full tuition, the situation does not seem worth the price.
“I wasn’t enjoying my classes, and I also didn’t feel that I was learning as much from my remote classes. I didn’t feel like it was worth the money to have that subpar experience,” said Gaby Goldberg ’21, who has decided to take a leave of absence. “I feel really lucky that I have the money to go to school if I wanted to, but I just felt it wasn’t really worth it this year.”
“In the wake of COVID-19, the gap year has been incredibly popular,” McFarland said. “Many students have realized that online instruction is significantly less valuable than face-to-face instruction — all the more when you’re attending a prestigious institution akin to Stanford.”
Newman said that they are expecting that more students than usual will take leaves of absence this year, either for the full year or for some portion of it.
“I think that a lot of people who would never have considered taking a gap year are now considering. Before COVID-19, I was not planning on taking time off at all. I was going to go my four years and get my degree,” Neidig said. “I think that it’s definitely forced people to question what’s important about college and whether they can experience those things [with the current situation].”
Josh Singh ’23, who is considering taking a leave of absence, and Liu both said that they felt the need to take a break to find out what they are interested in.
“It felt that there was so much stuff in college, like college was happening to me so fast,” Singh said. “So it allows me some time to develop myself more as a person before going back to college and trying to take full advantage of all the things that are around me.”
Liu said that he doesn’t know which career he hopes to pursue. Even before the pandemic, he felt that he needed some time to explore his options.
Many have found internships or jobs to fill the time, while others are still weighing their options.
“Right now, I’m thinking about getting a couple of friends together and working on a project or startup,” Liu said. “I’ve also been working on an internship this summer, and I was thinking about continuing my work there since I got a return offer. I might want to work in the healthcare space or doing volunteer shadow or scribe work.”
Goldberg, on the other hand, has a job lined up that she is looking forward to.
“I used to feel that I really just wanted to graduate and get a move on and get my degree and then start working,” she said. “But I’ve been working remotely this summer and having a really good experience. I just realized that I can keep working remotely and take time off school.”
When asked what students should consider before taking a leave of absence or a gap year, Newman said, “I would want them to consider what they’ll be doing with their time while they’re away from Stanford. Obviously, during a leave a student isn’t making progress toward completing their degree. So the question is whether the student has other opportunities during this time that make it wise to take time away from their academic work.”
Contact Zenobia Lloyd at zenobiarose97 ‘at’ gmail.com.