(LOS ANGELES) -- 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 to pursue academics and service abroad.
"Admission offices 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.
In a persuasive column in the Burlington Free Press, she paraphrases Middlebury's acceptance letter to those who have asked for a gap year deferment:"Congratulations, you're in. Now go away."
Her students have spanned the globe.
Right now, Cindy Li of Chesterbrook, Penn., 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.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio