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I’m supposed to be a college junior. I’m taking a semester off instead

In this Sept. 25, 2019, file photo, people rest on grass while reading at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Steven Senne, Associated Press

For college students across the United States, this summer was wracked by the pressure of tough decisions. Many of us were forced to choose between either returning to an unrecognizable college experience or taking some time off. Facing the cost of tuition for a semester with a high chance of going virtual, I decided to press pause on my college education — and I wasn’t alone.

One in five students in America made the same decision to refrain from enrolling in a fall semester, generally choosing to work full time instead. Colleges with previously abundant sources of revenue from room and board and other on-campus expenses now find themselves fighting to survive the massive financial toll of COVID-19. Pandemic or no, the message is clear: Regardless of whether or not a vaccine is approved, colleges will have to reopen for in-person learning in the spring, or risk continued financial turmoil.

Right now, many colleges going ahead with on-campus learning aren’t doing so well. After all, the smallest rise in cases on campus could send students home at a moment’s notice. UNC Chapel Hill, after only six days of classes, reported that 130 students and five employees tested positive, and undergraduates were sent packing — a burdensome and time-consuming feat, especially for out-of-state students. The University of Alabama, which has over 500 on-campus cases, is facing the same decision. Some schools have already decided to shorten their fall semesters on campus, going completely virtual after Thanksgiving break.

In our yearning for on-campus learning and in our memory of the hasty end to spring 2020, younger college students poll more likely to see this fall semester as less valuable than the past. While there are many positives to online education, they are overshadowed by tuition costs that for many online didn’t see a reduction. In fact, 62% of schools online raised their tuition, a terrifying statistic. The reality is that many students are unwilling to pay full price for college outside of the brick and mortar classroom, or restricted indoors with a high likelihood of shifting to virtual learning.

Colleges would be wise not to overlook this, because there are simply too many other paths that students can take. Students deferring their college education have in overwhelming numbers reverted to working full time, choosing the fiscally responsible approach of saving in hopes of a spring return to regular on-campus learning. Others have chosen online education at a significantly lowered price through online community college courses or think-tank programs. A small percentage has even chosen volunteer work.

While every college student has a different financial situation, and financial aid and scholarships for many limit the ability to defer, the gap semester/gap year is a successful strategy for many college students. For many, the return to college amidst an unpredictable pandemic is a financial gamble, and an unfeasible long-term decision.

The restoration of on-campus learning in the spring is hopeful for many, and while it’s understandable that colleges work to act in the best interest of student’s health, students should be trusted to monitor their own well-being. After all, the fall attendance numbers show they’re certainly capable of monitoring their own financial health. Temporary alternatives to on-campus learning preventing the loss of hard-earned money have blossomed in the face of natural disaster. To win those students back, and to survive the long-term effects of the pandemic, colleges must reopen.

Justin Corbin is an incoming student at The Heritage Foundation’s The Academy, a Young Voices Contributor, former national media director of the Black Conservative Movement and a community organizer leading Pittsburgh city cleanups and voter registration events.