As speculation builds over how many students will show on college campuses in the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession—some projections now suggest colleges could lose up to 20% of students—questions are mounting about how students will use the time away from school.

In my last piece, I suggested that rather than see it as a year off, students ought to view it as a year “on purpose” to discover their passions and purpose and how they can best contribute to the world. I offered a variety of suggestions for how students could spend the time during a pandemic, including online projects and internships, online volunteering, online community and mentors, online courses, and volunteering on the front lines to help amidst the health crisis.

New York University Professor Scott Galloway has suggested that the US build a “Corona Corps” in which students “would be trained in modern handheld technologies that provide facile, crisp communication and organization skills that arrest geometric spread. In addition, Corps members could become apprentices for jobs in key parts of the supply chain we now deem essential (delivery, warehouse workers, etc.). … With an ageist COVID-19, the Corps would be a fighting force with powers of defense no other cohort has.” The Corona Corps would allow its individuals to “marinate and mature”—and, I would add, use this crucible to develop their leadership capacity.

Brandon Busteed has argued that it’s time to reinvent the gap year “to obliterate the stigma that a gap year is sometimes seen as a ‘year off.’ For many students, it’s the right first step toward maximizing their college experience and exploring a fulfilling career trajectory.” Busteed believes that students could enroll in online programs in which they learn who they are and where they fit professionally, connect with professionals and a mentor, complete projects with companies, and cultivate community with other students.

Matthew Kraft’s idea for a “tutor corps” could also provide an important avenue for students taking a discovery year, not just recent college graduates.

Galloway’s, Busteed’s, and Kraft’s suggestions make good sense to me and echo my own thinking about how to do this amidst a pandemic and physical distancing. Research in Choosing College also suggests it would be a good idea for students who take a discovery year to work and earn money—but the latter could be difficult during a recession.

That’s why LearnLaunch’s—a nonprofit education innovation hub in New England where I’m on the board—efforts to partner with some prestigious higher education institutions to offer online internships with education companies could be helpful.

Another way to do meaningful work that approximates the type of experiences one might gain from a job during this time would be to take online courses of study that offer experiential learning opportunities. That could be through colleges that offer online experiential learning as part of their courses—say through a partnership with Riipen or Parker Dewey. But it wouldn’t have to be with employers.

Take Adjacent Academies for example, which the Entangled Group has incubated in partnership with Davidson College. At Adjacent, non-computer science liberal arts undergraduates develop technical skills through experiential learning. Together, they dive into an intensive learning experience that favors application rather than discourse, failure and iteration over answers, and teamwork over individual success. All students receive a transcript from Davidson, which they can seek to have their home institution accept for transfer credit. Given Davidson’s reputation and regional accreditation, the odds are likely more favorable that at least some of the credit will be accepted than at other online options.

The experience is filled with regular collaborations in which students pair and team on projects and present at the end of the week for feedback. At first, instructors create the projects, but the work quickly becomes interest-driven. For example, students define the capstone, as they vote up or down on ideas and quickly organize and project manage to deliver the final project. Teams learn to operate as they would in the work world, with stand-up meetings and a great deal of ambiguity and missteps that require rapid problem-solving.

As Adjacent has shifted to an online environment, the experience has, in certain respects, been a seamless one, as the technical projects are well suited for an online modality. The students now simply leverage platforms like DiscordZoom, and Loom to learn and do their work. And to facilitate the connection of students to the world of technology, Adjacent facilitates networking and guest speakers online. The main difference? Students now need to work even harder on communication and project management—both useful skillsets to develop.

Although Adjacent aims to reopen in the Fall with its in-person experience, this moment online is particularly useful as it has started to connect directly with students so they can enroll in the program, as opposed to reaching students through its partner institutions. And if students taking a gap year can receive credit from Davidson—some of which could potentially transfer—before they’ve even taken their first college class, then that could be valuable in multiple respects.

The point is that even though campus-based schools might not be back to business-as-usual, come the fall, if large numbers of students take time—a few months or a year—before enrolling, there is plenty they can do, even amidst a pandemic, to make the time productive and transformational.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.