Forging a new path: More NH students turn to gap years before college

Pandemic has given them a different view of traditional postsecondary education path
Gap Pic

Leilani McMath of Gilford is working at Town Docks in Meredith after deciding to take some time off after her first year of school at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. (Serena Pugh/The Laconia Daily Sun)

Most students plan for college during high school, and few expect to take a year off. But since the pandemic hit in 2020, not only New Hampshire but the nation is seeing a rise in gap years, when high school students take time off before enrolling in college.

According to the National Student ClearingHouse Research Center, first-year enrollment for universities fell 13.1 percent in the fall of 2020, compared with a drop of 1.4 percent in the fall of 2019.

The fear of uncertainty and absence of the traditional college experience has made students think twice about their decisions. The Covid-19 pandemic has also altered students’ view on what learning looks like. Traditionally, students went to university to both learn and experience college life. However, after spending two years of their education learning from home, some students feel like school has become more of an obligation than an experience.

As a result, some have decided instead to leave school and spend time at home, which is known as a gap year.

I spent this summer interviewing students, some just coming off a gap year, and some who are just about to start. The reasoning behind their decisions varied. If it was a break to work on their mental health, a chance to earn money, or just some time to map out their next steps, these students knew they needed to take time off, and that is exactly what they did.

When I asked students what their pre-pandemic expectations were for themselves, Bridget Robichaud answered, “College. One hundred percent … even in 7th grade I opened my college board account.”

Robichaud is a graduate from Bedford High School in the class of 2021, and spent her last year attending Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. After realizing that living there wasn’t good for her mental health, Robichaud decided to take the upcoming semester off and re-evaluate.

Vocalizing mental health concerns among young people has become more widespread, and there has been an influx of students finding similarities in their struggles, especially with navigating online learning and the new state of our world. For Matthew Laforge, a 2022 graduate of Manchester Central High School, said the pandemic made him lazier with his work, even when he returned in person for his senior year. Laforge said that if it weren’t for his high school counselor, Rachel Hedge, he wouldn’t have seen other options in addition to attending a trade program. He is excited to be taking courses from home at Manchester Community College.

Discouraging application process

Not only did the pandemic affect the mental health of many high school students, it affected the process of applying to colleges.

Thomas Cain, a 19-year-old graduate of Gilford High School class of 2021, noted that, “They still weren’t doing any in-person tours in the fall of 2021, so I only could sign up for a virtual tour. Or if I did an in-person [tour], they had very limited openings and you would have to sign up really quickly, and I couldn’t verify that I would be around on that date.”

The application process was so discouraging he decided to take time off and try again the next year. He spent this last year working in the Lakes Region and taking a break before entering college. He spoke about not having enough time to research colleges and to prepare himself personally. He used the extra year to get help touring schools and looking into what he needed to enter college. Cain is now entering Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., this fall.

Lela Schuler, a 2022 Pinkerton Academy graduate, felt similarly. She spoke about the last time she was physically learning in school during her sophomore year in 2020.

“I felt not unprepared,” she said, “but that I skipped out, and I haven’t had a chance to catch up with myself and reorient myself in regards to college. I didn’t want to immediately jump into something that I knew I wasn’t ready for.” Schuler, too, is taking a year off.

Each student dealt with these emotional and practical changes differently. Although there are students who graduated during the pandemic and happily entered college right away, there are some who realized they could have a job as well as learn from home; and there are some that still plan to enter college but know that now isn’t the best time for them.

There is a wide spectrum of students who are just navigating early adulthood to the best of their ability. Psychologist According to Yesenia Schuler, Lela’s mother, “there’s no manual for life, it’s an individual process, and an individual journey. … I support gap years wholeheartedly, I really do, and I think that there should be more than just a gap year. It doesn’t have to be just a one-year set timeline, because there shouldn’t be much stipulation on the time that is taken to figure everything out, because that process is so individual. So a gap year for one may be different for another.”

The American outlook on the post-high school process has changed significantly from when Yesenia graduated from college, and finding happiness has become equally as important as earning a degree.

“Go wherever you’re most drawn to, wherever you want to explore, and wherever you think you will be the most happy. That is really all that matters,” said Leilani McMath, a graduate from Gilford High School in the class of 2021. McMath spent one semester at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and decided to take a gap year from spring 2022 to spring 2023.

I spent this past school year attending a liberal arts college in New York City, but with much thought, I decided to take a year off. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, with the fear of falling behind and changing my path, it caused me to isolate myself from friends and family, making the decision even more difficult.

When I made it official and told close friends and family, the overwhelming amount of support made me realize how little gap years are spoken about. It is common for college students to take a year off, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. So whether you are just entering college, taking a year off, still in high school or long graduated, it is OK to move at whatever pace feels right for you. No matter what you are doing or what you did, try to find satisfaction in the process of life.

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