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At Harvard, other elite colleges, more students deferring their first year

At Harvard and other colleges in the region, more students than typical have decided to delay their first year.
At Harvard and other colleges in the region, more students than typical have decided to delay their first year.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Facing perhaps the most uncertain year of college life in recent history, droves of first-year students at top-tier schools are choosing to defer their admission for a year.

Twenty percent of Harvard first-year students are opting to defer their admission, the school announced Thursday, as students decide to take a gap year rather than start their elite education online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At MIT, 8 percent of first-year students deferred, up from normally around 1 percent, according to the university. At Williams College in Western Massachusetts, 90 students took a gap year instead of the usual 25. And at Bates College in Maine, 10 percent of students have requested deferral, up from 4 percent.

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“I get it. [But] I’m sure the schools aren’t happy with those numbers,” said Karen Long, a personal college admissions counselor at the Dromgoole Center for Admission in Concord who said about 20 percent of her clients have also chosen to defer.

Long said colleges normally cap the number of deferrals but this year some have been more flexible amid the pandemic. More of her clients were also accepted after initially being put on wait lists than in the past, especially transfer students, she said.

In addition to the dramatic increase in first-year deferrals, Harvard anticipates that significantly fewer undergraduates overall will enroll this fall, either to live on campus or to learn remotely. All of Harvard’s undergraduate courses will be taught online but the college is bringing back to campus first-year students and some upperclassmen who need to live in the dorms for academic reasons.

Overall, Harvard expects 5,231 undergraduates to enroll, nearly 1,470 fewer students than usual, shaving the college’s traditional population by nearly a quarter, officials there said. In addition to the first-year students taking a gap year before starting college, some upperclass students have chosen a leave of absence.

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In normal times, between 100 and 130 incoming Harvard first-year students defer their enrollment, to volunteer, travel, or get a job. This fall, 340 first-year students, or about 20 percent of the traditional 1,650-student class, have opted for deferment. It’s unclear what the students will be doing during that gap year.

Harvard has offered additional financial aid and grants to help lower-income students continue with their education, university officials said.

Harvard said it was premature to provide specific numbers on the share of sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are planning to take leaves of absences for a semester or a year. Those applications for leave are approved on a continuing basis, according to an announcement Thursday.

Harvard invited all freshmen in the United States and more than 1,000 upperclass students who may have trouble accessing technology or have challenging situations at home to live on campus. The college made room for about 40 percent of its traditional undergraduate population on its campus, but ultimately only 25 percent have chosen to come to Cambridge, the university said.

Harvard tried to give its students flexibility and support to help them make the best decision for themselves and their families, a university spokeswoman said.

“I am confident that our plans will deliver a truly excellent learning experience for all students and enable our unparalleled academic community to thrive in these profoundly changed circumstances,” said Claudine Gay, a Harvard dean, in a message on Thursday to faculty announcing enrollment numbers.

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A spokeswoman for Bates College said its figures are not set in stone because the school, like many institutions, has given students flexibility to change their plans as circumstances change.

Their gap-year students include many international students who have not been able to secure a visa amid the pandemic, according to a college spokeswoman.

In addition, some students have only asked for a gap semester rather than a year, she said. The school offered that option for the first time this year because of the pandemic.

Other, less elite schools are also seeing a rise in deferrals. Four percent of incoming students at Suffolk University have chosen to defer, a spokesman said, up from 1 percent last year.

The large number of deferrals will have a ripple effect for the class of high school seniors who will apply to college this fall, said Long, the college counselor. Those students are already worried that there will be fewer spots available.

“With the class of 2021 the anxiety is at such a high level right now,” she said.

The other challenge, according to Long, is for students taking a gap year to figure out what to do. In normal times students often travel, work, or participate in gap-year volunteer programs. Some colleges do not allow students to take courses at other colleges during their gap year.

As a result, some students are considering noncredit courses to learn a language, learn to code, or even learn to cook, she said.

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For many students who do not attend elite colleges, a gap year is not an option. Many juggle jobs and families and are in a hurry to earn a degree.

The more interesting question will be how many students defer at nonelite institutions, which educate the vast majority of students in this country, said Craig Goebel, a higher education consultant.

Public colleges in Massachusetts have delayed deadlines and have not yet said how their enrollment will be affected.

At the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which will operate all online this fall, just 1.2 percent of first-year students have chosen to defer. Instead, first-year deposits are up 10 percent over this time last year, a spokesman said.

“The game plays out very differently for the elite institutions of higher education versus the rest of higher education,” Goebel said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.