MEDFORD, Mass. – A new program at Tufts University hopes to remove the financial barriers keeping cash-strapped students from taking a year off after high school to travel or volunteer, offering an opportunity now typically only available to more affluent students to explore different communities and challenge their comfort zones before starting college.
This "gap year" program launching this fall 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 percent since 2006, according to data gathered by a nonprofit called the American Gap Year Association.
Princeton University began offering full aid to need-based applicants in 2009 and 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, 19, a 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 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, and said the students also tend to have less trouble adjusting to dorm life.
"This experience taught me that everything I learn in the classroom will be able to help me when I leave Princeton," said Jeremy Rotblat, a 19-year-old Princeton freshman from Cherry Hill, N.J., who said his experience volunteering at a hospital in Senegal better prepared him for college. "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' 4+1 program will be able to defer their admission for a year while still remaining tied to the university through video chat and email. Tufts will work with organizations including Global Citizen, City Year and Lift — which offer volunteering positions in areas such as education, economics, health and the environment 7/8 — 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, she said 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."