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With fall plan reversal, risk of two-year deferrals, and only 6 days to decide, students face difficult choice in requesting leaves

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

After the University backtracked on its previously announced fall reopening plan on Friday — disinviting first-year students and juniors from campus — many students now face entirely new factors in deciding whether to take a year off.

The University initially extended the deadline to request a year off to Aug. 12 — a cutoff soon pushed back by a day, to Aug. 13. Still, this alteration gave first-years and juniors previously expecting to live on campus only six days to apply, a deadline that some students who spoke with The Daily Princetonian found disappointing and frustrating. 

Students pointed to the University’s policy on limiting the number of spots for one-year leaves as a compounding stress factor.

The University has repeatedly stressed that it may not accommodate all student requests for a one-year leave or admission deferral. Some students may be told they must take two years off — information that the University plans to release “as soon as possible,” according to a memo from Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun.

Sophomores, juniors, and seniors granted one-year leaves of absence will have 48 hours to formally accept the offer and “secure their leave” — still able to decline and enroll for the fall.  

First-year students granted one-year leaves, however, will not be able to reenroll.

“Only first-year students who learn that they must take a two-year leave (should that be necessary) will be able to rescind their request after August 13,” University Deputy Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’

Dolan first mentioned that the University could not guarantee all students an immediate return after a year off at a May 4 meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community — citing “housing and enrollment constraints.” On July 7, Dolan floated the idea of a gap year “lottery system” at a Q&A session organized by the Undergraduate Student Government. According to her message on Monday, the University “might have to resort to a computerized lottery” in determining who can take one-year leaves.

Hotchkiss previously stated that there “is no strict cut-off” in terms of the number of students who may be granted one-year leaves. In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ he wrote that the University “will work to allow the option of a one-year leave to as many of those who request it as possible.”

When asked what factors determine “enrollment constraints,” Hotchkiss wrote, “Leave of absence and deferral decisions are based on the fact that we have fixed residential space on campus and a limited local rental market.”

“We must also ensure that faculty have sufficient availability to advise undergraduates’ independent work,” he added.

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None of Princeton’s peer institutions within the Ivy League have made similar statements about possibly limiting the number of students who are approved for a gap year or one-year leave of absence, and offering a two-year deferral or leave to the others. 

Harvard University has stated, “it is possible that we will have too many students seeking to matriculate at the same time, and we may not be able to house everyone on campus in the traditional First-Year housing.” If there is excess demand for housing for fall 2021, Harvard will create “a process by which students may apply for undergraduate residential housing,” and students who do not obtain space in Harvard residence “may be granted an exception to our requirement that First-Year students must live on campus.”

At face value, Harvard and Princeton’s housing constraints appear similar. At Harvard, 97 percent of students normally live on campus — a figure comparable to Princeton’s 96 percent.

At Yale University, where first-years, juniors, and seniors have been invited to live in residence for the fall semester, undergraduates have been told they “have the option of taking a leave of absence or a gap year,” with no limitations specified. 

The University of Pennsylvania has stated that students may request a one-semester leave, Dartmouth College has explicitly allowed members of the Class of 2024 to postpone enrollment by one year, and Cornell University continues to stand by its plan to reopen campus to all students. Columbia University, similarly to Harvard, has warned students taking leaves that they may not be guaranteed housing when they return. 

For one student who spoke with the ‘Prince,’ the discrepancy between her experience in requesting a leave and the experiences of her friends at other Ivy League institutions has raised a red flag. 

“What are the specific ‘enrollment constraints’ that Princeton has that Harvard doesn’t have?” asked Emma Bearss ’22, who applied for a leave of absence in July. “I understand if there are legitimate issues, but they just haven’t been articulated.”

The notion of housing constraints left Sara Shiff ’24, a student hoping to soon join the Class of 2025, equally confused. 

“It makes sense in theory, it’s just, if I was the one who got a two-year gap year and I was told it’s because of there aren’t enough rooms, I’d say, heck no, I’ll get an apartment if it means one-year. I’ll live off campus if that’s what it takes,” she said. “The amount of beds … yes, that’s a valid concern, but why not just let students decide?”

Bearss said that repeated warnings of “being forced to take a two-year leave” have left her wondering whether the University is employing a “scare tactic,” a sentiment that Shiff also raised.  

“It just puts kids in a really awful position,” Bearss said. 

For Shiff, the University’s response to the crisis boils down to frustration: “It’s been very disheartening, very unsettling.” For the incoming first-year, part of that stems from pressure she has felt to stay enrolled despite wanting to take a gap year.

In her past messages, Dolan has recommended that students continue their education without a leave. “I urge you to persist in your studies if you possibly can,” she wrote on July 20. 

In the view of Yu Jeong Lee ’22 — a student with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to take an unplanned year off — “it’s incredibly difficult to take a gap year, especially if you’re not affiliated with a program or don’t have anything set in stone.” 

While the University’s Time Away website contains resources for students considering a leave of absence, Lee believes that the institution has not done enough to help students navigate this particularly stressful leave-taking decision.

“It’s not an easy decision to make in five days,” she said. “On the University end, we weren’t able to see any sort of organized resource — from career services, from alumni, or even just from college staff … like words of support for people who are considering taking [a leave].”

To fill what she identified as a void of resources for students considering a leave, Lee compiled a Google Drive of internship listings, advice based on her own experience, job search engines, and other tools. At first, her goal was just to help her friends, who now found themselves in a challenging situation. 

“When the new update came out, a lot of my friends who weren’t considering taking a gap year before now had five days to decide exactly what they wanted to do for about a year,” she explained. 

But after demand grew, Lee decided to share the online folder more widely through residential college listservs. Her hope was to provide students with access to resources in this difficult moment — particularly students from low-income backgrounds. 

“In this economy, if you take a year off, you’re most likely not going to find a paid job, which is just a big barrier,” she explained. 

Bearss raised a similar concern about low-income students trying to plan gap years, particularly those in the Class of 2022 and 2024. 

“The University waiting to go fully remote until now,” she said, “I think that disproportionately impacts lower income kids because just the nature of people, or parents, being able to find internships through other connections, will inherently benefit more connected students.”

Bearrs noted that many fall paid internship application deadlines have already passed, thus putting those only considering a year off now at a disadvantage in that process. 

Correction: A previous version of this article framed a quote from Yu Jeong Lee 22 slightly out of context. The quote has been removed. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.

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