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Why high school juniors could be big losers in the coronavirus pandemic

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  • High school juniors may find themselves at a disadvantage when they apply to college next year.
  • With many current seniors looking to defer college admission for a year, there may be less spots available for the class of 2021.
  • Juniors are also set to miss out on the activities that often help distinguish an application, like extracurriculars and jobs.
  • Low-income students may be disproportionately impacted, especially if SAT testing moves online.
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The coronavirus pandemic has thrown many current and soon-to-be collegiate careers into disarray, but some of the biggest losers have been a relative afterthought so far: the juniors who haven't even applied yet.

The reason why has to do with all the seniors who, heading into an uncertain collegiate future, may opt to take a gap year instead of enrolling as planned.

"Almost all of my students who have been admitted to top-tier colleges are reconsidering their plans for this upcoming academic year, with some submitting gap year request forms to delay the start of their freshman year so that they can have the full college experience," college admissions consultant Christopher Rim, the CEO of Command Education, previously told Business Insider.

If schools open online in the fall, 12% of high school seniors will take a gap year, according to a survey of 1,100 current high school seniors and college students by higher-ed research and marketing firm SimpsonScarborough. 

And, according to a Niche survey of 34,392 high school seniors, 7% of school seniors are considering deferring for a year or not enrolling.

For other students, deferring or not attending next year may not be much of a choice. International students, for instance, face ever-changing travel restrictions. Foreign nationals traveling from China currently aren't allowed to enter the US — and China was the largest source of international students in the 2018-2019 school year.

All of those students deferring admission — and the international students who may not be allowed to travel — will hypothetically matriculate in 2021. That means that the class of 2021 could be competing with two years' worth of high schoolers for a college spot — and the class of 2020 has already secured theirs.

Fewer college enrollments in the fall — coupled with cancelled extracurriculars and opportunities — spells trouble for juniors

"The reality is that there's going to be fewer enrollments and fewer graduates, and it's going to take time to get that back on track," Luke Skurman, CEO and founder of Niche, told Business Insider in an email. "Our recent survey shows that half of high school students are rethinking their college options and 9% are considering deferring their acceptance. That, combined with 26% of college students considering transferring or taking time off could lead to a devastating fall — but opens up the possibility of a much larger than usual spring and fall 2021 enrollment size for institutions who can weather the budgetary pain of the fall."

Of course, as Rim previously noted, it's "unclear" how colleges will handle gap year requests — and what students would even be able to do during a deferred year.

Further compounding the plight of the juniors is the loss of what Rim calls a "hook" — something that helps them stand apart in an already crowded field. For many, that comes in the form of research or extracurriculars — most of which have been cancelled due to coronavirus closures. SAT tests have been cancelled through August, meaning students will get fewer opportunities to take the test or try and raise their scores.

And lower-income students will likely be disproportionately impacted. In losing access to school buildings and libraries, they may have lost their only chance of using a quiet study space and computer. Even having one computer may not be helpful if students need to share it with a parent working from home.

The Pew Research Center found that racial minorities, rural residents, and those with lower education and income levels are less likely to have internet connectivity. That could have devastating repercussions for prospective college applicants or SAT test-takers if tests move online.

As Rim notes, many lower-income students receive SAT tutoring through public schools. If tests do resume in-person in August, they'll still be left behind by the absence of that tutoring. And, while many schools have moved to make SAT tests optional for 2021 admissions, those lower-income students who do not send in scores will find themselves going head to head with more well-resourced students who did.

All of that adds up to a bleak picture for juniors: they'll have fewer opportunities to hone the profile that colleges look for — like jobs and extracurriculars — and will find themselves competing for a reduced amount of seats. And, in an already pitched battle to ensure equal access to opportunities in college, exaggerated socioeconomic differences during the crisis can make it harder for the "have-nots" to access good colleges.

The plight of the juniors only further illustrates the tentacle effect of the coronavirus pandemic: the aftershocks will shape American lives for years to come.

SEE ALSO: The end of campus life: What colleges will look like in the fall, from Zoom classes to deserted quads and sports stadiums

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