Eileen AJ Connelly

Paying for a post-high school ‘gap’ year need not deplete the college savings

By Eileen AJ Connelly
Associated Press / January 26, 2011

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An announcement that your child wants to take a year off before heading to college can be scary. There’s the fear she’ll never find the motivation to go to school. The concern she’ll fall behind. The prospect of paying for an expensive program to fill the time.

The growing popularity of taking a “gap year’’ has generated much attention about the cost. Prepackaged programs promising life-altering experiences are replacing the old model of backpacking across Europe. Programs can charge $30,000 or more. But it’s possible to get the benefits of time off without digging into savings, if you have a plan.

Work and study: Sofi Hernandez-Crade applied to expensive art schools during her senior year in high school in Woodland Park, Colo., but she knew she wanted a year off first.

She was drawn to programs offering experiences like painting murals in South America, but the price tags were prohibitive. Such programs, often run by nonprofit organizations, typically do not cover living expenses.

After saving money from working as a waitress, she enrolled in an eight-week program at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where she studied sculpture. The program costs about $7,500, including room and board.

“Penland was eye-opening,’’ she said. “It was extremely inspiring.’’ She then returned to Colorado and worked as a nanny for seven months.

Hernandez-Crade thinks the time helped her become a more focused student.

A year of service: Daniel Cowen grew up in a relatively wealthy suburb of Boston. He wanted to give back, so he applied to City Year, a private group partnered with the AmeriCorps national service program, which places young people in schools in 20 US cities, where they tutor and mentor children.

Cowen assisted a second-grade teacher and helped out with after-school programs. He learned to admire the difficult work of teachers, he said.

City Year can also help pay for college. It offers a small stipend to cover living expenses, and graduates are eligible for an award of nearly $6,000.

A matter of choice: There’s no blueprint for a gap year — that’s part of the appeal. When consultant Holly Bull works with a client, “I lay out this smorgasbord of options and watch for what makes them lean forward,’’ she said. One lure is the chance to experience different things, so she encourages trying two or three options.

Some universities, such as Princeton, offer free or low cost programs for admitted students. Assistance may also be available through private programs; Global Citizen Year, which places students in Senegal, Ecuador, and Brazil, offers scholarships.

Structured programs have advantages, especially for international experiences, including the ability to provide help in emergencies.

Some colleges may offer academic credit to students who complete organized programs, or may waive foreign-language requirements.

Eileen AJ Connelly writes for the Associated Press.