Whether you want to see the world, test out an interest or learn a new skill, taking a gap year after high school can send you in an exciting new direction. But is it possible to have an affordable life-changing experience and still have enough money to return to the even-more expensive world of academia?
Absolutely, say the experts, and they are keenly aware of your budgetary concerns.
“Affordability is kind of my thing because, frankly, I’m kind of shocked when I see some of the prices for these gap programs,” says Sue Di Filippo, owner of the student consulting business Gap Year Explorer in Arlington, Va.
But Julia Rogers, founder of Enroute Consulting in Stowe, Vt., says finding the right financial fit is all about customization.
“A gap year is open, available and possible for any budget. You have to know a little about what kind of money you have to work or play with. Then, opportunities will show themselves,” she says.
Rogers and Di Filippo work with students and others to find and coordinate the best gap experience possible. Along with David Stitt, managing director of Gap 360, based in the United Kingdom, they shared some tips on affordability. Another place to find experts is at a gap year fair where you can talk with program representatives.
1. Start and save early.
The first step is talking with your parents. How much, if anything, would they be willing to contribute to a gap year or semester? What are the negotiating points: the structure of the gap program, your financial contribution, a pledge to return to school? Can you agree on a level of adventure and how to pay for it?
Meanwhile, it never hurts to put money aside as soon as you think you might want to take a gap, says Rogers, who recommends starting with part-time jobs and birthday and graduation gifts. That means planning as early as junior year or even sophomore year.
Many experts recommend splitting your gap time between working and trying something new. Di Filippo tells students to take the year in thirds, with one-third spent filling out college applications (if you haven’t already been accepted and deferred going to college), one-third working and saving, and the final third traveling.
2. Try fundraising and crowdsourcing.
Fundraising can be a major tool in your gap tool belt. There are two primary methods: real-world (local) fundraising and crowdsourcing.
Local fundraising can take many forms and includes simple ideas like a car wash. Several websites have lists of suggestions, including Journeys are Made@gapyear.com, a social network created by backpackers. AFS-USA, a nonprofit focused on student exchange programs and study abroad, also has a fundraising guide on its website.For help planning a fundraiser, Rogers suggests talking with a community organization that might be interested in partnering on a gap-year project, such as raising money for an overseas medical mission.
Popular crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are also great online platforms for raising funds, and the latter has a partnership with gap-year program provider Thinking Beyond Borders. Students looking specifically to volunteer might try Volunteer Forever. The website gives you space to describe your project and then helps you raise the money through social media and crowdsourcing.
Whatever method you use, Rogers says to be clear about your goals. Explain your mission and its benefits, particularly the benefits to others, and define specific needs like raising money for a plane ticket.
3. Look for financial aid and school-sponsored programs.
A number of scholarships and grants are available to help fund gap programs. The American Gap Association, says Rogers, is a good source for beginning your search.If you’re still applying to colleges, consider schools with a gap or bridge-year option. For example, Tufts University’s 1+4 Bridge Year Service Learning Program places admitted freshmen in service organizations for a year before they begin classes and offers varying levels of financial support. Princeton University’s tuition-free Bridge Year Program is a nine-month service term in one of five international locations. And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a competitive Global Gap Year Fellowship, offering a $7,500 stipend for a self-designed gap year.
4. Choose an experience that is self-supporting.
The more structured the gap program, the higher the cost is likely to be to cover things like staffing, says Rogers. But there are alternatives.She's a fan of WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a consortium that takes you on as a farm volunteer in exchange for room and board, one way to offset the costs of a gap year.“It’s an excellent way to travel the world,” she says. And she speaks from experience: She worked on a WWOOF farm in New Zealand.Those interested in Australia, says Di Filippo, can secure a visa and work in the hospitality field or on a ranch for upwards of $20 an hour, through programs like Take Australia or Visitoz.
Also, domestic programs such as AmeriCorps may offer a stipend or student loan deferments. And, if you like children, working as an au pair, in the United States or overseas, can mean a stipend plus free room and board.