Leonard Cassuto is an English professor at Fordham University and a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education. His most recent book is “The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It.”

Higher education’s question of the moment is whether colleges should “reopen” fully, not just virtually, in the fall. The next question — one of them, at least — is whether students take a gap year if their institutions stay online-only.

To students, I say: Go for it. Just don’t plan on the usual sort of gap year. This is your chance to make a difference. To colleges: Help students make their gap year count.

College in the United States is designed to be an intellectual community in physical space, not cyberspace. The college community comes together in the classroom. (For some students, it continues in the dormitory.) It’s a shared learning experience, not a virtual knowledge-delivery system.

Yes, technology has added valuable tools for professors to extend that community beyond the classroom walls. But conversation in the classroom — and in the hallway, or the cafeteria afterward — remains the core of the experience. Without it, college just isn’t as good.

In a poll this month, a third of graduating high school seniors said they are likely to rethink their plans if their intended college goes fully online. Obviously, plenty of students may choose to stay in school, even if it’s online-only. They may do so for health reasons, or because they simply want — or need — to graduate as soon as possible. They should have that choice. But for others, there are opportunities for different kinds of education before they return to campus.

Washington, D.C., high school senior Anna Parra Jordan explains why she decided to opt to take a gap year and delay college because of the coronavirus pandemic. (The Washington Post)

An entire gap-year industry has burgeoned during the past generation. It offers young people new experiences that complement what they learn in college, often involving travel to faraway locations. But this clearly isn’t the year to play gap-year tourist, even if travel restrictions ease. More important, covid-19 has created myriad social needs that we all have a social responsibility to meet. A gap year spent fulfilling that responsibility could become the most meaningful educational experience of a student’s college years.

In 2020, gap-year experiences should center on work — and service. Students who take a pause from college can help put the nation — and the world — back together and add to their educations in the process. This applies both to well-off students and those struggling with the cost of their coursework.

The numbers tell us that young people are at low mortality risk from covid-19, but that doesn’t permit carelessness. With prudent safeguards, though, students can go out and do good and useful things.

Habitat for Humanity, for instance, says its gap-year program is on for the coming year. Other well-known charities also offer service gap years. The Service Year Alliance places gap-year students in public-sector jobs in areas such as disaster relief, the environment — and now pandemic response.

We need more such opportunities, and colleges and government can play a role in that. They might emulate the model of another gap-year program, City Year, that puts students in inner-city classrooms to tutor and student-teach. City Year is part of AmeriCorps, which sponsors service work of all kinds.

This work helps us all — so we should expand its funding to allow lower-income college students to engage in it, too. And colleges that already offer service-learning programs should bolster those efforts and consider turning them into internships that earn course credit, which would help cash-strapped young people take part.

Americans have gotten too used to thinking of higher education as a personal investment in a credential. The challenges of 2020 should remind us that at its core, the university experience isa public good.

College and society should serve each other. Done well, the service gap year would bring students, higher education institutions and communities together. It would give young people and schools a way to give back, and, in the process, provide one of the best learning experiences any student, parent or teacher could ever wish for.

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