This shouldn’t be confused with study abroad, however, which is generally a ­junior-year, classroom-based program, in contrast to the experiential approach of the gap year, though most students do opt to supplement the latter with language or other classes. Deciding how to spend the year can be overwhelming, but for those who don’t want to make their own plans, consultants offer guidance in choosing vetted programs and ensure student safety throughout the year; the AGA has established standards to which those organizations must adhere. One benefit of going with an organized program, says Knight, is that many of them have plenty of scholarship money to offer participants.

For the most part, colleges and universities have been routinely supportive of the gap concept, encouraging incoming students to take a year off and accommodating on-campus get-togethers of gap-year returnees. Those include Harvard College, which says 80 to 110 freshmen each year defer enrollment; Elon University in North Carolina, which offers a service-learning gap semester that takes participants across the U.S. and then to Costa Rica while they earn college credits; and Prince­ton, whose Bridge Year Program offers a tuition-free opportunity for incoming freshmen to spend nine months in either ­India, China, Senegal, Peru or Brazil. Funded through alumni giving and other university resources, the program has grown significantly since it began five years ago.

“Students come back with a greater sense of what they want to accomplish during their college career,” director John Luria says of the Bridge Year Program’s appeal. “I think education means something different to them. These students aren’t pursuing a degree, they’re really pursuing learning.” AGA’s Knight agrees, commenting that gap-year alums get more value out of their college education because they tend to be more committed to their studies.

NOW YOU KNOW: Last year, the American Gap Association members and its provisional members provided $2.5 million in scholarships and grants to gap-year students.

“It creates a sense of ownership for not only their academic careers, but their lives down the road as well,” he says. “They say, ‘So this is what it is to be an engaged person?’ ”

And if college is a distant memory? Julia Rogers, director of EnRoute Consulting, has recently begun supplementing her work coordinating gap years for students by helping arrange them for adults as well.

“Whenever I’m talking to adults — whether they’re parents of clients or just people who hear about the service — they say, ‘I want to take a gap year!’ ” says Rogers. In addition to helping find programs for them, she assists with logistics that 18-year-olds don’t face, such as home exchanges and how to put skills honed over an entire career to good use as a volunteer in a foreign country. The idea has struck a chord with baby boomers who have retired and those who are ready for a sabbatical. Says Rogers: “Why should kids have all the fun?” 

SARAH ZOBEL writes for a variety of publications, including Utne Reader, Boston Globe Magazine, Vermont Medicine and O, The Oprah Magazine, as well as