A new program at Tufts University and existing ones at a handful of other schools aim to remove the financial barriers that can keep cash-strapped students from exploring different communities and challenge their comfort zones before jumping right into college.
The gap year program starting this fall at Tufts will pay for housing, airfare and even visa fees, which can often add up to $30,000 or more.
Although gap years are more popular in Europe, they have started to gain traction in the United States. About 40,000 Americans participated in gap year programs in 2013, an increase of nearly 20 per cent since 2006, according to data gathered by a non-profit called the American Gap Year Association.
In 2009, Princeton University began offering applicants gap-year aid based on need. Nearly 100 students have participated, volunteering in Brazil, China, India, Peru and Senegal.
The University of North Carolina offers $7,500 to gap year applicants, while students at Wisconsin's St. Norbert College can receive financial aid based on need, although airfare isn't covered.
Lydia Collins, a 19-year-old Tufts freshman from Evanston, Ill., said she took a gap year because she wanted to see what was outside of the classroom before committing to four more years of school.
"A lot of kids are very burnt out after high school," Collins said. "Taking this time to be with yourself and see yourself in a new community and light will only help you to succeed in college."
Collins worked in microfinance in Ecuador through the poverty-fighting group Global Citizen and said the experience inspired her to pursue international relations, something she would not have known about beforehand.
Students who take part are able to see the world beyond the bubble they grew up in and return to school with a better perspective of their future, said Holly Bull, president of the Center of Interim Programs, which counsels students on taking gap years. Bull said the benefit of the structured time away from school is too valuable to exclude lower-income students.
"Students return to the classroom more focused, independent and confident," said Bull, who took a gap year herself to Hawaii and Greece. She said the students also tend to have less trouble adjusting to dorm life.
Jeremy Rotblat, a 19-year-old Princeton freshman from Cherry Hill, N.J., said his experience volunteering at a hospital in Senegal better prepared him for college.
"This experience taught me that everything I learn in the classroom will be able to help me when I leave Princeton," Rotblat said. "It is easy at times to question the purpose behind all the school work. But seeing the value firsthand encourages me to push myself academically."
Students selected for Tufts' 1+4 program will be able to defer their admission for a year while still remaining tied to the university through video chat and email. Tufts is planning to work with organizations including Global Citizen, City Year and Lift — which offer volunteering positions in areas such as education, economics, health and the environment — to create packages that fit students' financial needs, including travel and living costs.
Patrick Callan, founding president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, applauds the gap year experience but said structure is key.
"Sometimes, for less motivated students, taking a year off could lead to them never coming back," he said, adding that students that go in without concrete goals can be sidetracked from their studies. "You need to come in having a plan."
For Collins, working in a foreign country away from her family and friends was a reality check.
"After that experience," she said, "I can definitely take on college. It's nothing now."