As colleges figure out how to structure classes this fall, many students are wondering if they should even enroll. The idea of taking a year off may sound tempting, but returning students should think twice.
Many colleges have an official gap year or a deferred enrollment policy for freshmen. But returning students who take time out and re-enroll as soon as the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic are over are not gappers. They are “stopovers” and they are exposed to risks not associated with a traditional gap year.
Institute of Student Loan Advisors President and Founder Betsy Mayotte explains that colleges have individual vacation and resignation policies for students who wish to take time off. Students who fail to follow these rules may run into unexpected debts and no longer have access to their academic credentials.
“I see a lot of students who just quit school and don’t understand why they’re being charged,” Mayotte says.
Taking a break from college this fall could hurt your overall educational and financial goals. Here’s why you should stay enrolled.
Unless the college makes a concession, students without an approved leave of absence are at the mercy of the readmission policy to see if they can return. Even with an approved leave of absence, under the Department of Education’s Code of Federal Regulations, you can only miss 180 days in a 12 month period.
“Students need to weigh their options and see what’s going on with their university,” said Kenneth Stephens, director of human services at Southeastern University in Florida. He notes that while his school has systems for students dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, others are still trying to find out.
Some colleges allow students to re-enroll after two years with no problem. Others, like the University of Miami or East Carolina University, require students to file a readmission application and pay a fee after missing just one semester of school.
Schools also do not have to re-admit students who take time off. For example, the University of Arizona Graduate College requires a new application, application fee, and a minimum GPA of 3.0 for all previous coursework at the university before readmission is granted. And Drexel University in Philadelphia makes it clear that if the curriculum changes during their stay, students may need to complete additional study credit to graduate.
They may even need to sign up for another program.
If you have student loans, an exemption may cause repayment to begin. Contact your student loan service provider or lender to find out their guidelines.
Due to a provision in the federal government’s coronavirus aid package, all federal student loans are in administrative forbearance until September 30th. So until then, you don’t have to worry about your loans receiving interest or getting repaid.
However, if you plan to miss the school year, you will exhaust this window and payments will begin after your six month grace period has expired. While there is speculation that the forbearance may be extended, nothing has been announced.
Federal student loans only receive a grace period. If you use it now, it will no longer be available to you after you graduate, Mayotte says.
The Coronavirus Aid Package Forbearance does not apply to private student loans. If you decide to stop over because of covid-19, your private loans can enter the grace period and then move on to repayment. And not all private lenders allow academic respite for students returning to school. So you might be eligible for loan payments even if you are back in full-time students.
Students who want to work full-time have to contend with the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. Coronavirus remains a threat, and a second wave could likely lead to further shutdowns, which could make finding and keeping a job even more difficult.
“I’ve had students talking about stopping over and I told them to really think about it,” said Sharon Taylor, director of academic counseling and professional development at Virginia State University. “The first thing you say is that you are going to work and I ask you to look at how many people are currently unemployed.”
Advising students to continue school if they can afford it, Taylor says, “It’s better to wait out the pandemic inside school than outside of school.”
If you want to minimize the uncertainties associated with coronavirus in your school, there are options other than complete withdrawal.
◼️ Half-time schedule: Students can take fewer classes and still retain some of their financial support as they progress toward graduation. Not all students are familiar with online learning. Taking fewer classes gives you more flexibility in case your school closes early to go online.
◼️ Online Community College Classes: If you have general educational requirements, you may be able to do them online at a local community college. This can save you money on your lessons, avoid the strangers with in-person courses, and meet graduation requirements. Before taking any community college courses, check with your school to see if the classes are being transferred and if you are following your school’s dual enrollment guidelines.
◼️ Official leave of absence: If you decide not to take classes this fall, work with your school to take an official vacation. Communicate with your college to let them know why you want to take time off and when you want to return. Be sure to ask questions about the implications of the financial assistance and try to work out exemptions to get more favorable terms for your school and loan service provider. If you have personal loans, reach out to your lender to discuss your leave of absence and ask questions about how it will affect the status of your loan.
This article was made available to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.