The results were "startling," according to Clagett. "And we knew we were on to something here."
"The best predictor of overall academic success was being a Feb," he said. "My theory is that students who have an opportunity to get off the treadmill do better."
The Feb research led to another study that also suggested that students who take a full gap year may also outperform their college peers.
"The pressures of college admission to get in somewhere wags the educational dog in too many ways in high school," said Clagett. "And the students who get the brass ring into college step back and say, 'Where am I now?' That doesn't happen as much for Febs, who have had intense experiences or maybe worked."
Clagett's research is backed up an Australian study of 2,502 students published in the 2010 Journal of Educational Psychology, which said gap year students are more highly motivated.
"The conventional wisdom is you run the risk of the kid losing hard-earned study skills and, God forbid, they don't go on to college," he said. "But those aren't legitimate concerns. In my 30 years, I have never met a student who took a gap year and regretted it."
In addition to its 100 Febs, Middlebury accepted 40 students in 2011 who chose to take a gap year -- "the highest we ever had," he said.
One of them, Caroline Cating of Arlington, Mass., has woofed [Worldwide Working on Organic Farms] in Hawaii, learned to fly and worked as a ski instructor. Today, she is volunteering a day care center in Mexico for low-income children of single mothers.
"I absolutely love children, and nothing is so wonderful as making meaningful bonds with them," she wrote ABCNews.com in an email. "It has also been wonderful to practice my Spanish and learn a new culture."
For her, a gap year has meant "individual, unmonitored, personal growth."
"All of my different experiences have helped me learn to be patient and to have faith that things work out, though not always as planned," said Cating. "I've learned to budget for groceries and gas and rent, to navigate new social situations in which there isn't always a right or wrong answer."
Chloe Sharples of Austin, Texas, will start Colorado College in the fall after spending a whirlwind year abroad with the full support of her parents.
Today, the 19-year-old is in Chiang Mai, Thailand, volunteering for Art Relief International, after going on a daddy-daughter trip to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Last fall, she improved her Spanish volunteering in an environmental program with Carpe Diem in Ecuador and Peru.
"College is a choice rather than a path for me: I am going to college truly excited to learn," she wrote ABCNews.com in an email. "I've seen so many amazing things this year and met and learned from so many incredible people and I've been so inspired and become so curious about so much that I can't wait to take courses on all of these amazing subjects."
Her advice to the nervous parent, like Helderop's: "Don't be afraid."
And to students contemplating a gap year: "Be brave and do things that are outside your comfort zone …(but don't be dumb). Talk to people, the world has so much to teach."