FOR YOUNG people planning to go to college for the first time or returning, the events of 2020 may have created uncertainties. Colleges are seeing heightened interest in a gap year — a year off to work, travel or volunteer.

I’d like to suggest a fourth option — what about a gap year close to home contributing to your community while maintaining your post-secondary momentum by taking courses at your local community college?

Young people considering next steps in life have much to ponder now. Surveys of high school seniors about their plans for the fall tell us that they have major concerns, including fear about being on a crowded campus and questions about online offerings instead of a campus college experience.

These concerns — and perhaps an interest in volunteering or getting involved in social justice issues — are making the prospect of a gap year intriguing for some 2020 high school graduates.

Historically, a gap year from college has been a time to reflect, take a pause on education and pursue other interests. While these endeavors are noble and can result in positive life experiences, there are many practical factors that should also be taken into account. These include the challenge of finding a job due to the pandemic, travel constraints that limit international experiences, and the impacts associated with “stopping out” of college — where too often, stopping out ends up equaling staying out.

With an average cost of about $30,000 a year for tuition and room and board according to educationdata.org, many students and families need to think carefully about the cost of a four-year college, especially if they don’t yet know if classes will be onsite or online and what turns that may take as the pandemic progresses.

Working during a gap year is also a popular option. But with unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression and even higher numbers for youth — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a rate of 25.2% for age 16-24 for May — working might not be viable. Positions that would normally be available to young people may be unavailable, particularly in hard-hit sectors like hospitality and retail. Furthermore, many of the international opportunities that gap-year students pursue are unavailable now due to travel restrictions.

“Stopping out” or just taking a year off isn’t the answer either. It disrupts the pathway to earning a degree, which we know will increase earnings over a lifetime, in addition to countless other benefits. Studies show that students who stop out are less likely to earn a degree, and the combination of college debt and no degree can lead to lower earning potential and higher unemployment for a lifetime.

What should students and families do?

One option is to reimagine the gap year by finding activities that develop character, career skills and inspire passion close to home. Many students involved in a gap year volunteer or work in ways that help them discover their passions, such as delving into societal issues important to them.

Local non-profits need help to continue their important work in our communities. And while students are looking for the volunteer positions that will spark their passion, a local community college can help them develop the skills needed to turn that passion into a career.

Lakes Region Community College and all of New Hampshire’s community colleges offer affordable, flexible and transferable programs that reflect the needs of the communities they serve. That is partly the reason community colleges cultivate strong ties to local employers. For students, that means that enrolling in a community college will provide exposure to a network of contacts in the community.

The real world and personalized approach that community colleges provide translates into a learning experience that is relevant and grounded in the passions and careers students wish to develop.

Rural communities in central and northern parts of our state are challenged by ongoing out-migration, leaving them with an even greater need for talented and energetic young people. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated that need.

As a young person, this is the time to think about how you can contribute to your community and maintain your momentum. Your local community colleges offer a direct, meaningful and affordable path to discover and grow into the professional you want to be. It may mean a different, more local path than you envisioned, but one that ultimately leads to the realization of your dreams and passions and to rewarding experiences as part of a community.

Larissa Baía is the president of Lakes Region Community College and lives in Concord.

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