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February 19, 2014

Tufts University freshman Lydia Collins, 19, took a year to serve abroad. Now she and the university are encouraging others to do the same.

The idea of a gap year, postponing the start of college, has become a bit more common in the U.S. and a handful of colleges and universities are now actually encouraging accepted students to take a year break before starting classes. While the experience is still out of reach for most students, more schools are expected to support and even help pay for gap years.

Starting next year, Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, will give incoming freshmen the opportunity to do a year of international or national service prior to beginning their studies. Alan Solomont heads the College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts. According to him, America is facing a crisis in its public institutions.

"The most important question that we should be asking future generations is: What are you going to do to serve?" Solomont said. 

Under the new program, Tufts students will stay in touch with faculty throughout their service year. When the year ends, they'll talk about their experiences together. Solomont said it's important to give financial support to those students who want to take a gap year but can't afford one.

"We are going to make it available to students of all economic backgrounds," Solomont said. 

Tufts isn't alone. More and more elite schools are packaging gap years. Princeton and UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, have started to offer fully subsidized service programs so that more low-income students can get similar experiences to their affluent peers.

Mara Dolan is a higher education consultant. 

"A lot of students need a gap year," Dolan said. "They're not ready to begin college."

Dolan doesn't find it ironic that more schools are telling students to take a break and then overseeing their experience.

"It's certainly consistent with the idea of what a college education provides, which is something more than a degree," Dolan said. "It's developing the whole student so that they can become higher functioning individuals, when they go out in the world."

Despite these efforts, though, gap years are unrealistic for most families. Buying plane tickets and passports and visas before spending a whole year overseas can be expensive for students and the vast majority of public colleges and universities.

Anthony Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

"Extending this down towards the bottom 2,000 colleges in America, the first barrier will be they simply can't afford to do it," Carnevale said. 

 He cautions that every year students stay out of school dramatically increases their chance of dropping out.

"If we're talking about well-heeled kids who get to make a lot of mistakes - take a lot of risks in their college career - and will make it because they have the backing from their parents and the school, I think it's a very good idea," Carnevale said. "I would be worried about it for less advantaged kids."

Research shows creating any kind of gap in formal education is most harmful to low-income, non traditional students. While gap years are becoming more common, they're still quite rare in the U.S. Fewer than two percent of students who get accepted to schools decide to take a year off before attending.

“Not all gap years are educationally equal,” said Joseph O'Shea, director of undergraduate research at Florida State University. O’Shea thinks more students should take time to serve or work before going to college, and he recently wrote a book called Gap Years: How Delaying College Changes People In Ways the World Needs. 

“Some students just take a gap year and sit on their parents’ couch,” O’Shea explained. “Other students on the other end of the spectrum go overseas and have an immersive experience in a developing country. And I think that’s probably among the most intensive experience you can have.”

Research suggests students who have that kind of experience become better critical thinkers and engaged citizens.

Inside the student center at Tufts, freshman Lydia Collins grabs a snack between classes and then charges her campus debit card.  

"So not real life," Collins explained. "I'm always very thankful for the amount of vegetables and fruit that are always available here, because last year it was a lot of rice, beans and potatoes."

After being accepted at Tufts, the 19-year-old from Evanston, Illinois, packed her bags and moved to Ecuador. She taught English and worked in a micro-finance organization and helped businesses get loans.

Collins said the experience helped her understand foreign aid. 

"I also wanted to learn about myself and throw myself out of my comfort zone, before spending a lot of money at college," Collins said. 

Tufts and other universities hope these new gap year programs will push other students to get out of their comfort zones and learn skills like leadership, self-awareness and empathy - skills that educators and economists agree the country desperately needs.

This story originally aired on NPR.

higher ed, increasing access and success, Tisch College, global competitiveness, Tufts University, gap year

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