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Friday, May 24, 2024
The Eagle

Deferrals increase by 61 percent as AU commits to virtual learning

Administrators attempt to balance a growing deficit and public health concerns

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily. 

Incoming student deferrals for American University’s fall semester increased by 61 percent compared to previous years, as classes will be held online and on-campus housing has been canceled, according to data provided to The Eagle by the University.

Ryan Cassidy, an adviser in the College of Arts and Sciences, shared data with The Eagle that showed that 35 to 45 students typically defer per year. However, the number has increased to more than 100 students as AU’s fall plan and the pandemic forced students to reevaluate their priorities about an online semester. 

“There’s a silver lining in this,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Jessica Waters said. “We are going to do the absolute best we can and provide the AU we know is still there.”

First-year undergraduate and graduate students at AU who decided not to begin their studies at the University for their intended first semester must present an intentional reason to defer, such as a religious activity, a community service project or a structured gap year. The University does not grant deferrals for financial reasons, according to the University’s website, and admitted students had to make the request by July 1.

Deposits from first-year students for the fall semester decreased by 117 in comparison to the deposits submitted this time last year, according to the data. Sharon Alston, the vice provost for undergraduate enrollment, said that this difference is abnormal when comparing this year’s deposits to last year’s.

Emily Jones-Green, CAS senior director of advising, retention and recruitment, said that the pandemic has forced students to think about “what they value in their educational experience.”

Students who struggled with virtual learning during the spring semester, who are unable to “stare at a screen all day” or who are now facing financial troubles know that they may struggle during the fall semester as well, Jones-Green said.

She acknowledged that the number of students who have decided to take this semester as a leave of absence or defer their acceptance to AU is an “anomaly.”

All undergraduate and graduate students have the option to request a temporary leave of absence, which is an “interruption” of studies with the University for a specified period of time. 

Leaves of absence are requested by semester, and students are not allowed to take more than two during their time at AU. After the leave, the student is expected to return. 

However, this can result in a loss of financial aid and change the student’s graduation year. A temporary leave outside the U.S. for international students will “terminate” the student’s immigration status, according to AU’s website. A leave can also count as a permit to study, in which the student enrolls in a course with another institution for credit at AU.

Just within Cassidy’s advising group of CAS students in the World Languages and Cultures department, he has signed about five temporary leave forms and about 10 permits to study.

Becca Connet, a senior from southern Illinois studying anthropology, decided to take a leave of absence for the fall semester. She said she made her final decision the day the University announced it would be fully online, but she was considering it before then.

Connet was studying abroad in Kenya during the spring semester before she was forced to return home because of the pandemic. Her classes focused primarily on geology and paleontology, and when those classes shifted online, she said she performed poorly.

“Those classes just don’t translate,” Connet said. “You can’t learn those skills online. It’s frustrating.”

Mihika Gokarn, a sophomore in the School of International Service from San Francisco, also decided to take a leave of absence, but she said it wasn’t a difficult decision.

Gokarn was concerned about finding housing in D.C. after the University’s initial fall plan, AU Forward, guaranteed on-campus housing for only first-year students and some sophomores. Her parents didn’t want her to leave home as the pandemic worsened around the country, she said.

“Being in D.C. was such a substantial part of my experience at AU,” Gokarn said. “Being given the ultimatum that I wouldn’t be able to go back for the fall, my next reasonable thought was, ‘I might as well take the next coming semester off.’”

Interim Dean of Graduate Studies Wendy Boland acknowledged that being in D.C. is a significant priority for students who attend AU. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s announcement that people traveling to the city from high-risk states would have to quarantine for 14 days was a major factor in the administration’s decision to make the semester fully online, Boland said.

Administrators “couldn’t imagine” making new and returning students sit in a dorm room alone for two weeks as their introduction to the school or the city, Boland said. “It wasn’t the right time to bring students back to campus.”

Gokarn said that her experiences last semester, when AU transitioned online, were “chaotic,” but her professors were lenient. She said she didn’t feel confident that her learning would be as flexible as in the fall semester.

AU’s transition to online learning in the spring semester led to multiple students filing lawsuits against the University alleging that the University did not fulfill its contractual agreement with the student community. AU told The Eagle in May that, despite the transition online in the spring, the University continued to provide students with access to expert faculty and support services.

The University is again grappling with translating in-person classes to virtual formats. 

“We want to provide the best experience,” Waters said. “We are going to continue to do our job, and we are going to continue to do it well.”

Since students won’t be returning to campus, the University is reducing tuition by 10 percent, which is an expected loss of about $20 million of revenue for AU, according to the data provided by Cassidy.

The University said in May that it expected to lose over $100 million for the 2021 fiscal year because of the pandemic.

“The deficit had to occur,” Boland said. “This is the decision we had to make for the safety of our community.”

Though first-year deferrals have risen and returning students have decided to take leaves for the fall semester, graduate student deposits increased more than eight percent compared to last year, according to data provided by Cassidy.

Alison Jacknowitz, the senior associate dean for Academic Affairs for the School of Public Affairs, said that online learning is able to “fit in” wherever the individual is, especially as she’s seeing graduate students enroll in programs after years of not attending school. 

Dan Papscun contributed reporting to this article. 

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