Amid pandemic, many college students dropped out to travel, save money, pursue other career options

Amid pandemic, many college students dropped out to travel, save money, pursue other career options

Some have no plans to return to the classroom post-COVID

By JOHN LEAHY | UConn Journalism
Jan­u­ary 18, 2022

GLASTONBURY — Col­in O’Doherty woke up one morn­ing and had an idea.

It was June 2020, and the 19-year-old col­lege stu­dent had been con­flict­ed for months. His school, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont, had announced that it would con­duct all class­es for the Fall 2020 semes­ter online with­out a decrease in tuition. O’Doherty, a life­long res­i­dent of Glas­ton­bury, wasn’t sure if it was worth it. So, he packed his bags.

I’d already expe­ri­enced online school and I knew the dif­fi­cul­ties of that sit­u­a­tion. To me, it made more sense to take a year off and explore.”

O’Doherty hit the road, tak­ing extend­ed stays in both Col­orado and Hawaii over the course of the next year. He trav­eled with his col­lege room­mates, who also took a year off from school.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, 16 mil­lion col­lege stu­dents can­celed their plans to attend school in 2020, accord­ing to an August 2020 House­hold Pulse Sur­vey from the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau.

In the fall of 2021, under­grad­u­ate enroll­ment dropped by anoth­er 3.2% across the coun­try, accord­ing to data from the Nation­al Stu­dent Clear­ing­house Research Cen­ter (NSCRC). Stu­dents left col­lege to trav­el, pur­sue oth­er career options, or save mon­ey. It’s unclear whether they will return to the classroom.

In addi­tion to plum­met­ing enroll­ment, 49% of cur­rent col­lege stu­dents believe it is like­ly that COVID-19 will neg­a­tive­ly impact their abil­i­ty to obtain a degree, accord­ing to a Gallup poll from Decem­ber 2020.

Accord­ing to the NSCRC, less than 20% of col­lege dropouts ever return to school.

These trends reflect a grow­ing rejec­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­ca. Only half of Amer­i­cans now con­sid­er col­lege to be “very impor­tant,” accord­ing to a Gallup poll from Decem­ber 2019, com­pared to 70% of Amer­i­cans in 2013. The great­est drop was among adults aged 18 to 29, at 33 per­cent­age points.

Not plan­ning to return

For O’Doherty, the deci­sion to take time off from school was easy and he’s not plan­ning to return to col­lege. He and his friends at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont all agreed to for­go their edu­ca­tion for the 2020 school year, and they moved from New Eng­land to new homes in Auro­ra, Col­orado and Waiki­ki, Hawaii.

We knew going in that things weren’t going to be nor­mal, and we fig­ured, let’s do some­thing for us,” O’Doherty said in a joint phone inter­view with his room­mate, Jake Nicholson.

The pan­dem­ic is the biggest fac­tor dri­ving the mass exo­dus of stu­dents. Around 7.5 mil­lion stu­dents cit­ed COVID-19 as the main rea­son they were leav­ing school, accord­ing to Pulse Sur­vey data. O’Doherty said that he’d still be in school if not for the virus.

With­out a doubt, I would’ve stayed for four years [if not for the pan­dem­ic]. I was in school, and there would’ve been noth­ing to take me out of that,” he said.

Experts agree that the pan­dem­ic is behind increased dropout rates. Alex­is John­son, a col­lege admis­sions expert and coach who works with stu­dents through Access 2 Admis­sion, said many of her stu­dents left col­lege after reflect­ing dur­ing the ear­ly stages of the pandemic.

Some stu­dents have just come to the con­clu­sion that school is not for them and they want to pur­sue anoth­er path. COVID has giv­en them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do that,” John­son said in a phone interview.

O’Doherty also cit­ed the price of edu­ca­tion in his deci­sion. For a non-res­i­dent, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont costs over $61,000 per year, accord­ing to the university’s web­site. O’Doherty did not feel that the qual­i­ty of edu­ca­tion was worth the price.

Nichol­son, a 20-year-old from Sun­der­land, Ver­mont, trav­eled with O’Doherty instead of attend­ing his sopho­more year at UVM. The Ver­mont native was con­cerned about mon­ey as well, but also said he did not learn as much as he want­ed in his first year of college.

Dur­ing my gap year, I feel like I found more valu­able knowl­edge than any­thing I’ve learned in a class­room. I found new things I like to do, strength­ened things I already knew I liked to do, and learned how to adapt well to new sit­u­a­tions,” Nichol­son said in the interview.

While their class­mates attend­ed school over Zoom, the pair spent their year trav­el­ing through 20 states and 13 Nation­al Parks. They each saved mon­ey from sea­son­al restau­rant jobs, and both spent around $10,000 of their own mon­ey over the course of their travels.

The two lived fru­gal­ly in cheap Airbnb homes and spent the major­i­ty of their sav­ings on mul­ti-state road trips. When he need­ed mon­ey, O’Doherty worked as a Door­dash deliv­ery dri­ver. Nichol­son lived off his sav­ings and did not have to work.

In their trav­els, the two met oth­er stu­dents who had also tak­en time off from school. One was Cal­lista O’Connor, a 19-year-old from Evanston, Illi­nois, who O’Doherty met in California.

O’Connor moved to Hawaii and par­tic­i­pat­ed in online class­es at UCLA dur­ing the Fall 2020 semes­ter. How­ev­er, she quick­ly decid­ed that online cours­es were not useful.

At the end of [the semes­ter] I real­ized that I didn’t remem­ber any­thing from my class­es,” she said in an interview.

O’Connor, who has lived in Hawaii, Illi­nois, and Cal­i­for­nia over the past year, said she has met many oth­ers in her situation.

It’s been a super com­mon theme for me to meet peo­ple who are doing online school while trav­el­ing… and I’ve met a lot of col­lege dropouts this year.”

Dimin­ish­ing impor­tance of a col­lege degree

As more stu­dents drop out, the per­ceived impor­tance of col­lege may decrease among prospec­tive stu­dents. Nichol­son described his expe­ri­ence as a “wake-up call” to the fact that high­er edu­ca­tion may not always be the best option.

In high school, it would’ve tak­en a lot for me to con­sid­er not going to col­lege. Now, I’m not so sure,” he said.

O’Doherty and Nichol­son both agreed that their views on col­lege have changed after the time off. They talked about how much they learned on the road in com­par­i­son to their lack­lus­ter expe­ri­ences with col­lege courses.

In a class­room, you learn facts. When you’re liv­ing on your own in a real-world set­ting, you learn life skills. I think learn­ing the life skills is more impor­tant to me right now,” O’Doherty said.

O’Connor, who is in the process of apply­ing to col­lege again, agreed. Though admit­ting that she still val­ued her edu­ca­tion, she described the admis­sions process as “soul-crush­ing.”

I’m see­ing how lim­it­ing [school] is. It doesn’t seem like you go to school to try new things and fail, but more just to put your­self in a box,” she said.

For those who have left school, the future is often murky. Both O’Doherty and O’Connor are unsure about their job prospects in the long-term. O’Doherty recent­ly acquired work as a serv­er in Alta, Utah, and said he is con­tent with his cur­rent situation.

I don’t know what I want to do. Maybe I’ll go back to school some­day, but if I do it won’t be for a while. I’m per­fect­ly fine work­ing blue-col­lar jobs and trav­el­ing around for the time being… I’m not think­ing about a long-term career just yet,” O’Doherty said.

It is like­ly that a large pro­por­tion of recent dropouts will nev­er return to school. Many for­mer stu­dents who have expe­ri­enced life out­side of col­lege have found oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties to pur­sue, John­son explained. 

Stu­dents have real­ized there are oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties out there. Even though I am a pro­po­nent of col­lege, the pan­dem­ic has shown stu­dents that there are oth­er things avail­able to them out­side of col­lege,” she said.

Unlike O’Doherty and O’Connor, Nichol­son has returned to school, where he is pur­su­ing a degree in Glob­al Studies.

I’m hap­py here, it’s great, I love my friends and the cam­pus. But I def­i­nite­ly miss the way I felt when I was on my gap year. Through that expe­ri­ence, I real­ized what I real­ly want… and I haven’t been able to cap­ture that back at school.”