May 14, 2012— -- Sam Helderop received an acceptance letter from Michigan's Hope College this spring, but has no intention of going -- at least not in the fall of 2012.
The college has allowed him to defer his admission, and Helderop will take a gap year to teach English with the DaLaa project in a remote village in Thailand, then backpack throughout Southeast Asia -- "until my money runs out."
"I always wanted to travel pretty much my entire life," said Helderop, a graduating senior from Grand Rapids, Mich. "But after 18 years of the same old routine, going to school and sitting in class, I am not motivated enough right now to go through four years of college."
"I feel like a gap year will narrow down what I want to study and do in my life," he said. "To get my interest in education back again."
Helderop's mother is not happy about his plans to step off the academic ladder and do volunteer work.
But higher education experts say that giving students an opportunity to explore the real world helps them mature. And early research reveals that once they restart their academic studies, they actually perform better than those who go straight from high school to college.
An estimated 1.2 percent of first-time college freshmen take a gap year, most of them male students, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.
"These are still small percentages," said John Pryor, director of the cooperative institutional research program at HERI. But college admission officers say the gap year is gaining momentum.
In Britain and Europe the gap year has been de rigueur for decades, but a 2011 survey of American colleges estimated only about 18,000 of the 1.5 million freshmen had taken a year off after high school.
But now, some of the nation's most competitive colleges -- Harvard, Middlebury and Princeton, among others -- have adopted formal policies to allow students to defer their admission.
And public colleges like the University of North Carolina offer a Gappl scholarship to pursue academics and service abroad.
"Admission officers tell you is that the gap year increases independence and self-reliance and students have a confidence about them," said Julia Rogers, director of Vermont-based EnRoute Consulting.
Her students have spanned the globe.
Right now, Cindy Li of Chesterbrook, Pa., is interning for a radical art collective in Mexico. Mica Thompson of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is working on an elephant conservation project in South Africa and Tegan Henderson, an American living in London, is learning fashion alongside designer Stella McCartney.
"We live in an increasingly digital world and are existing more virtually than before," said Rogers. "The gap year forces them into a real experience -- learning a language on the ground, meeting people, engaging in situations -- all of which is becoming more and more rare among their peers."
The gap year is also an attractive option financially, costing an average of $10,000 to $25,000 compared to college tuitions, which are now upwards of $55,000 a year, according to Rogers.
She is helping Helderop shape his plans pro bono because his mother is not supporting his gap year, and his father died eight years ago.
"Travel makes Americans nervous, and we are suspicious of other cultures," Rogers said. "But I think that's changing and evolving, especially this generation, which is exploring the world more."
For starters, Rogers recommends that gap year students "do good work, be in a safe location and have a local coordinator."
Helderop estimates his year abroad will cost about $7,000, money he has saved himself through coaching tennis, working at a diner, and even donating plasma to get closer making to his dream a reality.
And a gap year doesn't have to be overseas.
Alex Galarce from Illinois is volunteering for 10 months with City Year in Chicago. There, he serves as a full-time tutor and mentor to keep students on track for graduation from high school. Next year, he'll attend New College of Florida.
"Doing City Year is what made me consider being a teacher," said Galarce, who had no idea what he wanted to study when he graduated from high school last year. "If I hadn't done a gap year, that would not have been something I was interested in."
Robert Clagett, who has worked in admissions for both Harvard University and Middlebury College for three decades, is a passionate convert.
While serving as dean of admissions at Middlebury, he and his colleagues did a comparison study of incoming freshmen: those who began in the spring term -- so-called "Febs" -- and those who took the regular route and enrolled in the fall.
They controlled for variables like high school credentials, having an affluent background or attending a better high school. The Febs not only had higher GPAs, but the positive effects lasted all four years.
Gap Year Freshman May Outperform Their Peers
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."