My older son is about a month into his freshman year at college, and like most of his classmates, is adjusting to new roommates, classes, and doing his own laundry.
But not all his friends are engrossed in campus life. One is doing volunteer work in South America. Another is preparing to go to Israel.
They’re taking gap years, a break between high school and college that traditionally begins in the fall.
There are no national statistics on the number of students taking gap years, but there’s no question the idea — and the number of companies offering gap year programs — is growing in popularity.
USA Gap Year Fairs began in 2006 with seven fairs at high schools. About 10 companies and several hundred people showed up, said Robin Pendoley, chief executive of Thinking Beyond Borders, a nonprofit group that arranges gap year programs. His company also helps organize the fairs.
So what sparked this interest?
Holly Bull, a longtime gap-year consultant, said it could be when first Prince William, then Prince Harry, took a gap year, which are very common in Britain.
British gap years tend to be looser and less structured than those in the United States and are often seen as “end up on a beach and get drunk,” said Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association, which accredits and sets standards for gap year programs.
But they’re also often cheaper. And that’s an important point, because many American gap year programs — and they are a mix of nonprofit and for-profit — run to $10,000 and up for about three months. String a few of those together and you’re paying the equivalent of a year’s college tuition.
That’s what Steve Warner found out when his son Elliot came home during the summer and said he wanted to take a gap year instead of going to the California college he was scheduled to attend in the fall.
So he made an agreement with Elliot: He and Elliot’s mother would pay for the programs if Elliot picked up the costs of all the backpacking, hiking, and diving equipment and some of the extras.
“We’ve spent about half a year’s tuition,” on the programs, Warner said, including $4,500 on a six-week reef conservation program in Belize, $14,850 on an 11-week National Outdoor Leadership School in Australia, and about $5,000 on flights.
But during part of his gap year, Elliot plans to work on organic farms where his room and board are free in exchange for his labor.
Anyone can take a gap year, or month, at any age, but the term most often refers to — and the programs are most often aimed at — teenagers who have decided to take a break between high school and college.
Some parents consider a costly program to be an investment in the future.
Sally Cantwell’s son wanted a breather between high school and college, but “our attitude was, this is not a luxury,” Cantwell said. “We wanted Simon to learn a skill.”
So he earned his ski instructor certification over 10 weeks in New Zealand and then spent the winter working at Deer Valley, Utah, where he will return this ski season.
One thing Cantwell, who is British and well versed in gap years, also didn’t want was a program that was “too structured. We wanted Simon to learn to handle things on his own.”
Most American parents don’t have the same inclination and prefer to know exactly how, when and where everything will happen.