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.”