Gap years should be made financially feasible for all

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Tufts University recently announced the program, “Tufts 1+4,” that will help mitigate the costs of taking a gap year for admitted students before beginning school, sparking a national conversation about the accessibility of unconventional routes to college. The gap or bridge year a year students spend before entering college studying or volunteering either abroad or domestically is an increasingly popular phenomenon, but generally only for students who can afford it. The Tufts 1+4 program, however, allows more students to have the structure and financial support they need to participate in year-long opportunities abroad and provides a template for how other colleges should rethink the gap year.

Students who seek study or volunteer abroad opportunities during their college career
usually hope to attain greater cross-cultural awareness and skills,
greater language mastery, deeper appreciation of their field of study
and a deeper sense of self. Students with the financial means are often able to access this opportunity before college even begins. The time has come for all students, regardless of economic standing, to
be able to study and volunteer abroad before their first year. The Tufts 1+4 program, which includes coverage of housing and airfare, will help pave the way for future programs of a similar design so that all students who want to take a bridge year will have the opportunity to do so.

Only several other schools nationwide integrate a bridge year program into their curriculum. Princeton University offers need-based aid for students hoping to take
advantage of their “Bridge Year Program,” a nine-month service learning
program available in five countries. St. Norbert College in Wisconsin also covers the costs for their gap year program, which takes students on a cross-country trip that finishes in St. Lucia, except for travel costs to the first site. University of North Carolina, meanwhile, grants a maximum $7,500 to prospective gap year students.

What distinguishes the newly formed program at Tufts it that it is the most extensive of all programs thus far in breaking down the economic barrier many students face when it comes to taking a gap year. Students who apply for and are accepted into the Tufts 1+4 program have all of their program costs covered, travel and housing fees paid and can choose from a wide array from programs, in contrast to St. Norbert’s pre-established itinerary and Princeton’s limit of five program sites.

“It’s
about providing an experience that up until now has been largely
confined to students from more economically privileged backgrounds,” Tufts Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler said in an interview with Newsweek.

The Tufts 1+4 program centers on civic engagement and service, so students may opt for volunteer-oriented organizations that may be unaffordable for students without aid. Additionally, Tufts 1+4 incorporates parts of the Tufts’ curriculum, creating a continuum between what students learn and do abroad and what they study in the classroom once they enter Tufts as first-years. The program emphasizes leadership development and “active citizenship” as core components of the bridge year experience it provides. What differentiates this program the most, however, is its explicit focus on making the option to volunteer and study abroad before college accessible to all.

Many students may not necessarily have guidance or support when it comes to finding scholarships or volunteer organizations in order to finance gap years. Although some schools, like Yale University, offer some help with identifying feasible programs, many institutions lack any kind of financial support or connection to the school while the student is abroad. In the Tufts 1+4 program, in comparison, students are still connected with the school
through blogs and video chats to retain structure and communication.

Historically, recent high school graduates looking for a buffer between schooling institutions have had to largely look on their own. Organizations like the American Gap Year Association (AGA) offer support by featuring a list of recommendations for raising funds for taking a gap year. As more students show interest in spending a year volunteering or working abroad, however, more colleges will have to follow Tufts’ lead.

Although planning a gap year by themselves shows great initiative and independence on the part of those who seek out such opportunities, many students simply do not know that such an option exists or do not have the resources to do so. Additionally, students who plan gap years independently likely have to go through many hoops to find the right program, enough scholarship money (if they can) or support while they are actually abroad. Not to mention some colleges do not allow admitted students to defer a year. By offering gap year opportunities through the school itself, more students will be able to take advantage of this great option. Colleges themselves will benefit by having better prepared and more motivated incoming first-year students.

Students who have spent their first years out of high school on gap year programs report greater independence, confidence, maturity, motivation and easier adjustments to college life in relation to their peers who did not take a gap year. In the context of the intensely globalized and interconnected world we live in, accessibility to study and volunteer abroad opportunities is more important than ever. Making these kinds of experiences an affordable and feasible option for not just a privileged few, but for all incoming first year students, should take a higher priority on all colleges’ agendas.

Cordelia Kenney is a senior history major. She can be reached at ckenney@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyCKenney.