Imagine starting your first day of college. You've got your acceptance letter, itinerary and faculty adviser all set. But instead of driving to campus to unpack your minifridge and extra-long twin bed sheets, you board a plane and venture abroad for a year of volunteer work and study.
Universities are getting in on the gap year, a period of exploring, volunteering or working between high school and college, by creating their own programs, partnering with gap year organizers and, in some cases, providing substantial funding.
Participating in a university-sponsored program can buy you a year -- or sometimes a semester -- between high school and college to explore new places and learn important skills.
[Decide whether a gap year is right for you.]
The most generous programs are offered by several top universities, offering funding to admitted freshmen who also apply and are admitted to the university's gap year program. The tough application process means that these programs are not for students still deciding whether university is the right step or looking to beef up their college applications, says Andrew Belasco, CEO of College Transitions, a college admissions consulting company. Gaining admission is competitive and only a handful of students are selected at each school.
Beginning in fall 2015, Tufts University will offer a bridge year service learning program, sending a group of incoming freshmen on a year of volunteer work and learning before they start a traditional four-year college experience.
The university is still finalizing the details on how financial aid will work, says Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts. But he says that it will be affordable for low-income students who can't pay for a similar experience on their own. "We're democratizing the gap year," he says.
Other universities that organize and fund gap years include the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, which provides $7,500 to seven early admissions students for use toward its Global Gap Year Fellowship. A group of admitted students can hold off on starting freshman year through the Bridge Year Program at Princeton University. Tuition and living expenses are covered but other travel costs, such as health insurance, are paid for by the student or need-based financial aid.
[Ask yourself these questions when considering a gap year.]
A few universities offer gap programs that don't buy time off school. Instead, they count as a semester or year of course work. After completing the Gap Experience at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, students return to campus with sophomore standing. Participants cover some travel costs but most are included in their tuition and room and board. Any scholarships, academic awards or financial aid are applicable.
North Carolina's Elon University offers a 13-week gap semester, which earns students nine hours of academic credit. Costs are included in tuition, fees and room and board, and students qualify for federal financial aid as part-time students.
Gap years can benefit both the student and the university. "It behooves colleges to support gap years," says Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, a gap year consulting organization. "They get much better students."
Gap year alums tend to be more focused and have a clearer picture of what they want to study in college, says Bull.
Gap years can also be used by the university as a recruiting tool, says Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association. Not only will a program encourage students to consider the university, but a school-endorsed gap year can convince parents who are squeamish about the idea to let their child take one.
"If I'm a parent, and Princeton's saying that my student should take a gap year, then maybe my student should," says Belasco of College Transitions.
[Find scholarships to help pay for your gap year.]
Some schools don't build gap years from scratch but partner with organizers and offer credit for completion. For example, the College of the Atlantic offers a $10,000 scholarship to alums of LEAPYEAR, an outside gap year program, and other programs. The New School in New York City partners with Global Citizen Year, another gap year organizer, to offer a 10-month "bridge year." Students return to campus as sophomores with 30 credits. Participants can apply for federal financial aid to participate in these types of organizations, says Knight.
If a university-run gap year doesn't appeal, you don't have to pay for a self-directed gap year on your own. Aid is available through various government and nonprofit organizations. The American Gap Association provides a long list of scholarships and grants. The benefits are that you'll have greater flexibility in choosing your destination and activities, and you can learn from planning and executing a gap year yourself.
While schools are becoming more supportive of gap years as they gain popularity, remember that it's best to earn admission to a college before asking your admissions office for a yearlong deferral, says Knight.
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