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.”