(iStock)

My first year in college, I was lonely, lacking direction and supremely worried about money. A first-generation student paying my own way, I had no idea how I would fund year two without subsisting on loans, even in 1982-dollar days. Quite simply, I yearned to travel the world, and three more years of classes plus job felt like death. I did travel. But first, I dropped out to work and build a travel fund.

Lots of parents worry a gap year will derail kids (for the record, I have a master’s degree). Even my husband doesn’t totally buy in because to him it represents extra cost only navigable for rich families. But traveling and learning outside the classroom are so valuable, I refuse to believe it’s not possible for regular incomes, so I checked with a couple experts.

Abigail Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, urges families to think of the year (she calls it a “bridge year”) not as an additional cost but as an investment that can reduce future costs and increase a family’s “return on investment.” That snagged my attention. On average, students take six years to get through college. “What we find is if students have an experience at the front end that grounds them with focus and purpose and an idea for using their education, they get through college much more efficiently and with a clearer focus for their learning,” Falik explains. Her students — in fact, most gap-year students — enter college with a strong awareness of money and budgeting. I like that kind of outcome.

Ethan Knight, executive director of American Gap Association, reminded me that part of the year can be devoted to living at home and working to raise money, giving students necessary ownership of the process. He recommends two to four experiences throughout the year, including work, an internship or volunteering, and adventuring if possible.

The best gap years are somewhat structured, purposeful and, in some way, involve students learning with a cohort of peers and mentors, at least for a portion. “Ideally, you’ve got well-trained adults to coach and provoke deeper reflection and learning beyond what students would learn traveling on their own,” Falik says.

But how to find structure without paying a bundle? Here are some ideas, along with tips for less structured opportunities.

Look for low-cost programs. AmeriCorps State and National offers many “no degree required” opportunities for service work around the United States. Under AmeriCorps, kids can repair hiking trails, distribute food donations or plant trees through National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), while FEMA Corps offers a disaster-response focus (for ages 18-24). Programs include a living allowance, housing and an education award toward college. CityYear, another AmeriCorps program, sends groups of volunteers into schools to serve at-risk students. (Be aware, program spots can be competitive.)

Student Conservation Association offers team-based gap years, as well as individual internships, to work mostly in outdoor and environmental conservation arenas. Typically, these include living allowance, housing and an education award toward college.

For determined go-getters, the Department of State offers programs that foster language study and cross-cultural exchange, summer or year-long. Look at National Security for Language for Youth or Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (ages 18-24) and Yes Program. Students are fully funded, so programs are competitive.

Omprakash offers vetted international volunteer experiences coupled with online curriculum, a structured mentor program and college credit. The fee is $750 plus flight and living costs, but if you’re living somewhere inexpensive, you won’t rack up much. It’s accredited by AGA.

Another AGA-accredited program, Cross-Cultural Solutions, offers vetted volunteer placements on teams in countries such as India, Thailand and Costa Rica for varying periods of time and corresponding (relatively low) fees. If you can swing it, staying longer benefits all involved.

The nonprofit Global Citizen Year offers a “bridge-year” of intensive leadership training with a home-stay and “apprenticeship” in communities across Brazil, Ecuador, Peru or Senegal. Falik is passionate about equity, and the program uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine need-based aid. To date, 80 percent of applicants have received some financial aid, and 30 percent have received full scholarships, so it’s worth a look. Not a program for the lackadaisical.

Tap friend/family connections. Do you have a relative or friend who lives overseas or in another region domestically? Perhaps they can facilitate a job or internship and would house your student. Try Idealist for internship leads. Or work or intern locally, then take off to adventure.

Work away. Most countries don’t invite young Americans to work, but New Zealand and Australia give working-holiday visas to people ages 18-30 for casual jobs. Domestically, CoolWorks lists seasonal jobs with camps, national parks and resorts, many including housing. Backdoorjobs also lists short-term adventure jobs.

Volunteer and travel. For savvy self-starters, WWOOF offers room and board in exchange for short-term work on organic farms around the world. Similarly, HelpX and Servas list international networks of work exchanges. Ask hosts plenty of questions to determine fit, and get a reference if possible.

Scout for scholarships. Informally, AGA found that programs gave away almost $3 million in need aid last year. Ask a program about financial help. Check out Hostel International’s $2,000 scholarships to qualifying students and check AGA’s tips for funding and scholarships.

Some colleges offer scholarships if you’ve applied and deferred. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers $7,500 for a gap year. Florida State is giving away $50,000 in $5,000 scholarships. Others may climb aboard. Check yours for resources.

Use a consultant. Knight says gap-year consultants can be worth the money upfront to save on the back end. That’s how he spent seven months in South Asia, working, interning and adventuring for $3,000 in 1997 (it’s still not very expensive). Consultants have contacts around the world to design an individual itinerary for your budget, so it’s possibly worth exploring.

To begin researching, think broadly about goals, Falik says. Many kids need an academic break or want to leave home and work. Knight suggests students spend 30-60 minutes on the AGA website exploring concepts, activities and locations (not programs). Write everything down and lay it aside. The next day, circle what still appeals to begin outlining a purposeful year. Read AGA’s starter list of questions for guidance and try Go Overseas for more ideas.

A word about international volunteer service work, a personal tick for me. Many think it’s positive, but “voluntourism” is complicated and potentially harmful to communities, especially short-term placements working with children. Two international campaigns, Better Volunteering, Better Care Network and Working Group on Global Activities By Students at Pre-Health Levels (GASP), are increasing awareness. Program efficacy will be difficult to ascertain, but avoid programs advertising orphanage work and uncredentialed medical work. The AGA does good work promoting ethical programs.

My personal plug: Go abroad if possible. It wakes you up to your American-centric worldview like nothing else. Falik says it opens you to diverse views and makes you a more capable leader, attributes employers value (but domestic experiences promote growth, too). Planning an affordable gap year takes work, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting and family travel. Find her work at www.joannanesbit.com or follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can sign up here for our newsletter. On Parenting can be found at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

You might also be interested in:

Be careful what you say this college application season

Why we’re teaching our daughter about our differences

My kids are growing up global. Here’s why that’s a good thing.