Still have doubts about going to college? Why shouldn’t you wait?

A note of caution for the 2020 and 2021 high school classes: Waiting to enroll in college lowers the likelihood that you will ever attend or complete a degree; it is a valid concern for both cohorts. Due to the pandemic, undergraduate student enrollment dropped 2.5% in fall 2020 and 4.5% in spring 2021, compared to the previous fall and spring, respectively, according to the Center. National Research Information Center for Students.

There are also warning signs of a looming drop in enrollment. The class of 2021 is slow to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Application is the gatekeeper to college financial aid, and as of April 2, 2021, completion is down 7% compared to applications completed at the same time last year. Completion of the FAFSA is an indicator of enrollment for the upcoming academic year, says Bill DeBaun, director of data and assessment for the National College Attainment Network. “When you talk about the senior class measuring millions of students, you are talking about a lot of students with their postsecondary trajectory potentially altered,” says DeBaun. Skipping college, delaying enrollment, or not finishing a degree has consequences: you’ll earn less if you don’t go. If you don’t go soon, you are less likely to return. If you start a career but don’t finish it, you are more likely to default on your student loans. A gap year made sense for many high school graduates in 2020 and is attractive to 2021 graduates as well, experts say. The pandemic resulted in an uneven college experience that may have included hybrid and virtual learning, regular COVID-19 testing, and quarantines. And not all students were well positioned, or had broadband access, to learn virtually. “We will probably be having this conversation 10 to 20 years from now, about how this affected the next generation,” says Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce. See also: Community colleges and their students were already vulnerable. Then came the pandemic. If you didn’t attend college due to the pandemic or are planning to do so, experts argue that you should reconsider. Here are three key reasons why: You will earn more with a title. So what if you delay or never go to college? Opportunity costs, mainly. Earning a degree could mean making nearly a million dollars more in your lifetime, according to data from the Georgetown University Center for Education and Workforce. According to a July 2020 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, delaying enrollment for a year can cost you a year’s salary over your lifetime, which you will never get back. Income, regardless of education level, will vary by occupation, region, gender, and race. But those with a bachelor’s degree still earn, on average, 31% more in their lifetime than those with an associate’s degree and 84% more than those with only a high school diploma. Don’t Miss: California State Universities Will Require COVID-19 Vaccines By Fall That’s not to say you can’t consider educational alternatives – short-term trade and certification programs, apprenticeships, and associate degrees are viable options. However, statistically, a four-year or more degree is more robust insurance for higher earnings throughout your life. For low-income students and students of color who statistically have less generational wealth, degrees are also the best vehicle for upward mobility, says Michelle Dimino, senior policy advisor at Third Way, a public policy think tank. . A recent Third Way study found that most bachelor’s programs earn enough salaries for low-income students to justify the out-of-pocket costs. “What we’re seeing is that the students who would benefit the most from the socioeconomic benefits that a college degree can bring are the least likely to enroll right now,” says Dimino. “The biggest concern we have for students delaying enrollment is that it could lead to them dropping out of college permanently.” The longer the pause, the more difficult it will be to finish a title. According to federal data, there are millions of adult students who do not. start college well into your 20s or older. But you’re less likely to complete a degree if you delay: Nearly half of those who delayed enrollment dropped out of college without obtaining a degree, compared with 27% of those who did not delay, according to a 2005 report from the National Center. for Education Statistics. The further you get away from high school, the less academic support and personal encouragement you have to attend college, experts say. You are also more likely to get a job, raise a family, and have other income demands. “There is something in that 18-24 window; if you start there, you’ll likely get to where you need to be, “says Smith. You are more likely to default on student loans if you don’t finish. Going back to college is especially important if you have student debt, as most students do. Without a degree, federal data shows, statistically you are more likely to be late and non-compliant. This result can result in a damaged credit score, collection costs, and wage garnishment. Federal data shows that between In a cohort of students who started college in 2003-2004 and defaulted on student debt, nearly half did not complete their education, while 10% completed a bachelor’s degree. The situation is worse for African-American students: The Brookings Institution found that black students entering college for the first time defaulted on their payments at a rate three times that of their white counterparts. How to pay for college if your family finances have changed If you are reconsidering your decision to delay or quit college, first find out the best way to pay. Get started by submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible to qualify for federal, state, and school financial aid, including Pell grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans. If your family’s financial situation has changed due to the pandemic, seek professional judgment from your current or potential school’s financial aid office. You will need to request a specific amount and submit documentation of why you need more help, such as confirmation of a parent’s unemployment or medical bills. Read next: How would ‘free college’ really work? What the Experts Say Could Be on the Cards If there’s still a gap to fill, consider private loans. Alternatively, you could think about going to community college for a year or two and then transferring. Find out if the community college you are considering has credit transfer agreements (known as an articulation agreement) with a four-year college you are interested in attending. More from NerdWallet Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. Email: anna@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.