Eclipsing the cost and competition students face when getting into college, today’s campus crisis is about student mental health, and it’s shaping college planning for the next year or two at least, industry experts say, as the nation finds its footing in a post-pandemic world.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that a third of college students have considered dropping out in the last six months. Teachers nationwide have corroborated that roughly a third of their students are absent from class or not participating when they’re there, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given that college is one of the most asset-absorbing investments a family can make, any disruption to their children’s pursuit of 120 credits over four years is risky behavior, experts say. As a result, it has never been as important for financial planners to help their clients—and their in-college or college-bound children—navigate that risk than it is right now. In doing so, advisors report that they’re hearing the words “gap year” with surprising frequency. 

Even before Covid-19 changed college enrollment, only about 60% of students would graduate from four-year B.A. programs, taking as long as six years to do it, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The remaining 40% either took longer than six years, or left one school to transfer to another, or dropped out altogether. 

“What I do is help families make their best financial decision when it comes to college and their kids. We want them to have a wonderful experience, but minimize the dollars that are spent on that exercise,” says Heidi Huiskamp Collins, a financial advisor in Bettendorf, Iowa. When she realized college planning was about so much more than 529 plans, she recently added the designation of “certified college planning specialist” to her various licenses. “If 40% of students are dropping out or transferring, that’s super-impactful on the financial well-being of the family.”

In a back-of-the-envelope example, she cites a hypothetical family with a college savings balance of $200,000 and a child going to Princeton or Stanford, which is $70,000 for tuition, room and board. “If then the kid drops out in year two, that’s $140,000, gone. Even if the kid re-enrolls somewhere else, now you have to set aside more money.” 

Helping clients avoid situations where students drop out, therefore, is a valuable service, she says, because if families get this wrong, it could result in a year or two of tuition down the drain. 

But if families get this right, the 2022-2023 academic year might be a valuable growth experience that could make up for the emotional impact of the pandemic and enable students to complete a degree within four years when they eventually do go to college, which is the average length of time it takes “gappers” who have had that extra year to focus, says the Gap Year Association. 

Joseph Bogardus, a CFP at Barnum Financial Group’s Center for College Planning in Shelton, Conn., says that even before the pandemic, not all kids were ready to go to college at 18, even if they did get into their dream school. “But I think Covid brought this out a little bit more because kids didn’t get a good experience their junior and senior year of high school. I have had more students delay going to school because they didn’t feel ready.”

Financial Planning Solutions’ Rick Fingerman, a financial planner in Newton, Mass., agrees that a gap year can be a great option for the right kids. “I’ve had more clients now telling me their child is taking a gap year, and that can be a good idea. The kids are looking at their first year and saying, ‘I want to be engaged.’ So they’re taking extra time.”

These planners and their clients are far from alone, says the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA. A study by the program found that, before the pandemic, only 3% of American students took a year off between high school and college, a number that jumped to 20% for the 2020-2021 school year. It’s expected that 2021-2022 saw the same level or even higher, researchers say, as enrollment rates continued to fall for that academic year.

Jessie Keyt, an undergraduate professor at New York University, says she always thought a good number of her freshman students would have benefited from taking a year between high school and college. “[But] after the disruption of Covid, I think a pause before college is an even better idea, and would likely help mitigate the uptake in crippling anxiety that I see in students now.” 

Having a plan for the year off—whether that’s travel for a particular reason (language skills, job training, cultural immersion), volunteering, or even working at a coffee shop, basically any situation in which there are clear expectations—could go a long way in building maturity and confidence, she says. 

Another year of maturity can make a huge difference. “Quite frankly, from an admissions point of view, those candidates who have taken a gap year tend to stand out a bit more in the applicant pool,” she says. “And in my experience, the kids who’ve taken time off before college tend to perform better in the classroom.”

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