College Kids Are Flocking to Outdoor Education Programs
Many students would rather be outside than stuck on Zoom all day—and most programs can't keep up with the surge in demand
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When 19-year-old Sabine Blumenthal first left college, she was in denial. Like the rest of her classmates at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, she was sent home in March as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the United States. Even though she was stuck finishing out her freshman year across the country in Seattle, Blumenthal was sure she’d be back at school in the fall. But as the pandemic stretched on, she started to realize that college wouldn’t be the same when or if she returned. She wondered if she could stand another semester cooped up at home or if she would feel OK spending most of her time alone in her dorm room. “That was hard for me to picture,” she says.
So, in June, Blumenthal applied to a gap year program at the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colorado. The program includes rock climbing and an emphasis on public land conservation—topics and skills she thinks will be useful in the future, since she’d like to pursue a career in outdoor education. Blumenthal had done a semester-long program through the organization in high school but had never seriously considered taking a gap year. “I had this one-track mind: full steam ahead,” she says.
But in the wake of the pandemic, Blumenthal is reassessing what’s right for her. “I’ve been at home for four months now and felt really stuck and in limbo,” she says. “This is going to be really good for me to take a risk again.”
Blumenthal applied to HMI before her college announced it would resume an in-person fall semester, albeit with numerous COVID-19 protocols and many classes still held online. Now, as many colleges and school districts return to virtual or hybrid classrooms, many students are weighing other options. Harvard recently reported that 20 percent of incoming freshmen are deferring for a year, and one survey by SimpsonScarborough, a research and marketing firm focused on higher education, found that 40 percent of first-year college students and 28 percent of returning students were likely or highly likely to defer. In the meantime, outdoor semester programs for high schoolers and students taking a gap year are experiencing record demand. But there isn’t space for everyone.
Ray McGaughey, director of admissions at HMI, says he gets up to five inquiries every day for its gap year program, which normally has space for only 24 students. HMI added—and almost instantly filled—a third 12-student section, growing the program 50 percent from last year. McGaughey says they could probably add a fourth or even fifth section and fill those as well.
Similarly, NOLS, which runs wilderness medical training, leadership courses, and high school and gap year programs across the country, reports a 125 percent increase in applications year over year and has hundreds of students waitlisted for fall semester programs. “It’s not a bad problem to have, except it kind of is,” says Kary Sommers, NOLS assistant director of admissions and marketing. “We want to educate and give the experience to the people that are interested in NOLS, but we just don’t have the capacity.” She says spring programs, which usually fill up four or six months before they start, are now fully booked eight and even ten months in advance.
A gap year offers students a choose-your-own-adventure break from Zoom school. Students can pair semester-length programs like HMI or NOLS with other plans for work, travel, internships, or volunteering. “All those students who said, ‘The gap year isn’t for me,’ now they’re saying, ‘Maybe there’s merit in it,’” says Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, which helps students plan a year off from school. He says searches for programs through his website have quintupled since this time last year. Outdoor programs provide an especially attractive option during the pandemic because they seem safe, Knight explains. Transmission rates for the virus are much lower outdoors, and it’s easier to socially distance and to create and maintain a COVID-19 bubble in the wilderness.
Demand for high school programs is also up. Not only are many public school districts canceling in-person classes this fall, but many extracurriculars like sports or theater programs are also canceled, so there’s little tying students to their local schools. Cullen McGough, director of marketing and communications for Chewonki, an environmental education organization in Maine, estimates the inquiry rate for their 45-student high school semester program has nearly tripled since many schools announced they wouldn’t open in-person classes yet. In early August, he even fielded a request from a parent asking if they could squeeze in their ten-year-old.
Unfortunately, like most outdoor programs, Chewonki is already full and can’t add capacity overnight. “When you’re relying on place-based education, you can’t simply double or triple things,” McGough says. Students spend hours each week learning from the tidal estuary and boreal forest on the 400-acre campus in mid-coast Maine, about 40 miles north of Portland. With one teacher and six or seven students, those forays are intimate and engrossing learning experiences that don’t translate to much larger groups.
Likewise, NOLS can’t pack an endless number of participants into a program. Land use permits issued by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management specify how many people can be in a group. And travel restrictions mean NOLS and other educators can’t run programs in all the locations they usually do. States like Maine require a two-week quarantine for anyone entering the state from outside the Northeast, which makes transportation for many participants to and from the course too complicated. All of these limitations mean that NOLS isn’t operating at full capacity and probably won’t be until summer of 2021, Sommers estimates.
NOLS is also contending with staffing shortages. In the early days of the pandemic, before there were clear guidelines or COVID-19 protocols, NOLS had to stop programming and send students home. As the virus ebbed and flowed through different states, and as different local policies changed in response, NOLS canceled some programs and laid off staff. But instructors couldn’t wait around to see when or even if their program would restart. “Instructors moved on,” Sommers says. “They found other jobs.”
And NOLS lost staff when the Trump administration suspended the J-1 visa program, which allows people to come to the United States to work as camp counselors or participate in teacher training. The ban is intended to help Americans get jobs as the economy recovers, but it also means that companies like NOLS can’t use much of their international staff to fill in for instructors they’ve lost to other jobs.
In addition to the strain on staffing the pandemic has caused, COVID-19 protocols also require extensive—and potentially expensive—infrastructure changes. HMI created an infirmary in case students get sick. Chewonki spent the summer reorganizing campus so there’s more space in the bunks and dining hall. Introducing more students means exponentially increasing the facilities, and some outdoor educators are skeptical that those big investments will be worth it in the long run. “We’re aware that this demand is artificial,” says McGaughey at HMI, who thinks interest will drop after the pandemic is over.
Sommers also isn’t sure this boom will last and says NOLS has no plans to expand at the moment. Right now, she says, they’re just focused on getting back up and running at pre-pandemic capacity. Peter Steinhauser, national brand and marketing director at Outward Bound, which runs gap year and high school programming, is more optimistic about what business will look like after the pandemic. “I don’t think it would fall off abruptly. I do think demand will continue to be there,” he says.
Whether or not demand stays high, reduced capacity for programs right now can have a lasting impact for future students—especially those who rely on financial aid. Gap year programs can cost upwards of $13,000. Many outdoor education programs fund scholarships through a combination of grant money and a portion of the tuition collected from full-paying students. But programs like NOLS and Outward Bound had to cancel many of their summer trips and say they still aren’t operating at normal capacity. Because these programs are serving fewer students this year, that means there will be less financial aid available in the future. Sommers says that NOLS’s annual financial aid budget of roughly $2 million will be cut in half next year because of COVID-19-related losses.
But there are still other options for students eager for hands-on experiences. “The gap year is not a program per se,” says Knight of the Gap Year Association. There’s little national data on how students choose to spend their gap years, but a 2015 survey of more than 500 students found that 37 percent of respondents designed gap years that didn’t include any organized programs. Instead, those students arranged their own combination of work, volunteering, career advancement—either through internships or classes—and independent travel. The most important aspect of a successful gap year isn’t an expensive program, he says, it’s clarifying your intention: “You have to take the time to figure out what the hell you want out of it.”
Right now, all outdoor educators want is to get through this fall without any massive COVID-19 outbreaks among students and staff. “All of this demand is predicated on us running successful programming, which we haven’t done with our protocols yet,” says McGaughey, adding that they’ve never started the year with so many unknowns. In regular times, organizations already have to contend with a host of safety concerns that come along with heading into the wilderness: broken bones, cuts and scrapes, allergic reactions, frostbite, dehydration. Figuring out quarantine accommodations—and getting teenagers and young adults to respect masking and other COVID-19 protocols—adds yet another layer of challenges. “It’s gonna be a trying semester,” McGaughey says.