January 10, 2014

Taking a Break from Classes

No matter how carefully you plan ahead, there may come a point in your educational career when you decide that you need to take a break, for any number of valid reasons.  You may have been called back into active-duty service.  You may need time to take care of a family member, recover
from an illness or injury, buy a house, get married, or have a baby.  Sometimes people have to face an unexpected crisis or disaster, and need time to deal with it.  Perhaps you are in the process of changing your academic goal or career focus and need a little time to sort through your options.  Sometimes people get stressed out or overwhelmed, and just need a change of scenery for a while.  Whatever the reason, sometimes you may just need to take a break.

Before you do, make sure you understand all the rules and implications of your decision, to avoid any unpleasant surprises.  Here are a few things to check when you’re thinking of taking a semester or two off:

  • Is there a financial penalty if you withdraw from classes?  If you’ve already enrolled in classes for the next term before you decided to take a break, you will need to withdraw from your classes.  Depending on the timing and your school’s refund schedule, you might not owe anything when you withdraw, or you might owe a partial or full payment of tuition and fees.  Even if you get a refund, there might be non-refundable fees that you should ask about.  If you started classes and then decided to drop, the VA may still pay you for a portion of the term that you attended, but you’ll have to repay the rest.  If the term hasn’t yet begun, you won’t get any VA money, even if the university sends you a bill.   Every school publishes their refund policies in their academic catalog, schedule of classes, on their websites, and on flyers posted in the registrar’s office or cashier’s office, so you have no excuse when you say you didn’t know there was a deadline or a fee.  Make sure you know the refund policies, and ask your registrar, cashier, or bursar if you have any questions. 
  • What happens to your VA benefits?  Contact your school certifying official or veteran services coordinator to let them know that you’re planning to take a break.  Your VA benefits will wait for you to return to school (but not beyond your delimiting date or age limit, depending on your benefits), but if you have a certification for the next term that isn’t cancelled in time, you might have to deal with an overpayment later.  If you do have an overpayment and you have questions about it, your certifying official will probably be able to explain the process or help you find answers. 
  • What happens to your financial aid, scholarships, or other financial awards?  It depends on the funding source.  It might be deferred until you return, you might have to reapply for funding later, or you might have to give up the funding. If you took out student loans, you might have to start making payments during your break.  Be sure to check with your financial aid counselor to find out. 
  • What happens to your enrollment status at your school?  At some schools, nothing happens.  You can stop or start in any term and it doesn’t make any difference.  At other schools, you might lose your student status, your spot in your degree program, or your registration priority when you get back.  You might not even be allowed back without reapplying like a new student.  Most schools will allow you to take a break from the institution while retaining your student status, but you will probably need to file a special “Leave of Absence” form before a set deadline, and there may be a fee.  Check with your academic advisor or your registrar’s office to find out about any needed forms, fees, and deadlines, and be sure to ask about the re-enrollment process. 
  • What happens to your degree program?  Schools actually make changes to degree requirements all the time, and the current requirements are published in your school’s current academic catalog.  When you declare a major, it will be specific to a “catalog year”, meaning the requirements that were published in the catalog when you declared that major.  Even if the degree requirements change after you start, you still stick with the program that was established when you started.  When you change majors or take a leave of absence, it may change the “catalog year” of your degree program, which may or may not make a difference in your remaining degree requirements.  If there have been significant program changes or if your program is being phased out, you will need to know how that will affect you if you take a break.  Ask your academic advisor about the impact of a break on your degree program. 
  • How will you pay your bills while you’re not enrolled?  This may be obvious, but somehow many students forget that they won’t be getting VA allowance payments while they aren’t enrolled in school.  If you’ve got money in the bank, or if you or your spouse is employed, then you may be able to afford a break.  Otherwise, you might have to look for a temporary job to keep the bread on the table.  In the current economic climate, that could be a lot harder than it sounds.  If you’re living in campus housing, or if your off-campus rent is discounted for students, then you will also need to know what would happen to your housing situation if you take a break. 
  • Do you have a plan to re-enroll?  Sometimes students are nervous about taking a break because they’re afraid that once they stop they’ll never get back to school.   Having a plan will help keep you on track.  Many schools have a limit to how long you can be absent before you have to reapply, so you will want to plan your return before that deadline.  You will also need to know when you can register for classes, when to apply for financial aid, and other re-enrollment details and deadlines.  Plug them into your phone or calendar as soon as you find out, so that you don’t forget later on when the time comes.  It’s very easy to forget about the important deadlines when you’re not on campus anymore, which is what makes it so hard for people to return after a break. 
If you’ve checked on all these details, made informed decisions, and created a plan for yourself, you’ll be able to relax and focus on all the other pressing needs that led you to take a break in the first place, and still return to school successfully.  If your plans change during your absence or new questions arise, you’ll know who to contact on campus for assistance.

Good luck, and keep charging!

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