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A cautionary note for the high school classes of 2020 and 2021: Waiting to enroll in college decreases the likelihood you’ll ever attend or complete a degree.
It’s a valid concern for both cohorts. Due to the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment was down 2.5% in fall 2020 and down 4.5% for spring 2021, compared with the previous fall and spring, respectively, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
There are also warning signs of an enrollment slump to come. The class of 2021 is lagging in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The application is the gatekeeper for college financial aid and, as of April 2, 2021, completion is down 7% compared with applications completed by the same time last year. FAFSA completions are an indicator of enrollment for the upcoming academic year, says Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network.
“When you’re talking about the senior class that measures millions of students, you're talking about many students with their postsecondary trajectory potentially altered,” DeBaun says.
Skipping out on college, delaying enrollment or not finishing a degree has consequences:
You’ll earn less if you don’t go.
If you don’t go soon, you’re less likely to go back.
If you start a degree but don’t finish, you’re more likely to default on any student loans you took out.
A gap year made sense for many high school graduates in 2020 and is appealing for 2021 grads, too, experts say. The pandemic resulted in an uneven college experience that may have included hybrid and virtual learning, regular COVID-19 testing and quarantines. And not every student was well-positioned — or had the broadband access — to learn virtually.
“We'll probably be having this conversation 10 and 20 years from now, as to how this affected the next generation,” says Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
If you sat out from college because of the pandemic or are planning to, experts argue that you should reconsider. Here are three key reasons why.
You’ll earn more with a degree
So what if you delay or never go to college? Opportunity costs, mostly.
Getting a degree could mean earning nearly a million dollars more over your lifetime, according to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Delaying enrollment for one year can cost a year’s worth of wages over your lifetime, which you never recoup, according to a July 2020 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Earnings, no matter the education level, will vary by occupation, region, gender and race. But bachelor’s degree holders still earn, on average, 31% more in their lifetimes than associate degree holders and 84% more than those with only a high school diploma.
That’s not to say you can’t consider education alternatives — short-term credential and trade programs, apprenticeships and associate degrees are all viable options. Statistically, though, a four-year degree or higher is a stronger insurance for greater earnings over your lifetime.
For low-income students and students of color who statistically have less generational wealth, degrees are also the best vehicle for upward mobility, says Michelle Dimino, education senior policy advisor at Third Way, a public policy think tank. A recent Third Way study found that most bachelor’s degree programs net low-income students high enough wages to justify out-of-pocket costs.
“What we’re seeing is students who would most benefit from the socioeconomic benefits a college degree can provide are the least likely to be enrolling at this point in time,” Dimino says. “The biggest concern that we have for those students delaying enrollment is it might lead to permanently forgoing college.”
The longer the pause, the harder it is to finish a degree
According to federal data, there are millions of adult learners who don’t start college until they’re well into their 20s or older.
But you're less likely to complete a degree if you delay: Nearly half of those who delayed enrollment left college without earning a degree, compared with 27% of those who didn't delay, according to a 2005 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The further you get from high school, the less academic support and one-on-one encouragement you have to attend college, experts say. It’s also more likely you’ll get a job, start a family and have other income demands.
“There's something about that window of 18 to 24; if you start out at that point, you’re likely to get to where you need to be,” Smith says.
You’re more likely to default on student loans if you don’t finish
Returning to college is especially important if you have student debt, as most students do. Without a degree, federal data shows, you’re statistically more likely to be late on payments and default. This outcome can lead to a damaged credit score, collection costs and wage garnishment.
Federal data shows that among a cohort of students who started college in 2003-2004 and defaulted on student debt, nearly half didn’t complete their education, while 10% finished a bachelor’s degree.
The situation is the worst for Black student borrowers: The Brookings Institution found that Black first-time college students default at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts.
How to pay for college if your family’s finances have changed
If you’re reconsidering your decision to delay or forgo college, first figure out the best way to pay.
Start by submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible to qualify for federal, state and school financial aid, including Pell Grants, scholarships, work-study and federal student loans.
If your family’s financial situation has changed due to the pandemic, request a professional judgment from your prospective or current school’s financial aid office. You’ll need to request a specific amount and submit documentation of why you need more aid, like confirmation of a parent's unemployment or medical bills.
If there’s still a gap to fill, consider private loans.
Alternately, you could think about entering community college for a year or two, then transferring. Find out if the community college you’re considering has credit transfer agreements (known as an articulation agreement) with any four-year colleges you’re interested in attending.