Standards & Accreditation
For those of you planning your own Gap Year, we've developed a list of 20 Questions to help you make sure the organization you're interested in is doing things responsibly - with respect to your safety, host relationships, and to maximize your learning. Download a copy HERE.
The American Gap Association holds the official Standards for Gap Year organizations in the United States as recognized by the US Department of Justice and the US Federal Trade Commission. In order to maintain this certification we have agreed to treat the Standards as a "living document" in representation of the variety of different ways organizations and experts will contribute to its development. Finally, we have invited a wide variety of experts in the field of Gap Years to share in developing the Standards and contribute to the research in the field.
The Standards as developed by the American Gap Association are evaluated assiduously to reflect the changing landscape intrinsic to this type of education. The Standards are meant to be certifications in those specialties where an organization practices - in other words, while an internship placement organization may not be focused on extended backpacking trips at their core, if they nonetheless plan on taking students on a short backcountry trip they will need to be in compliance with the Standards for a backcountry organization or those of a partnership in addition to any others that might be more obviously relevant.
Finally, the Standards are written to be detailed and meaningful. While many organizations espouse to have organizational directives that are more than rubber stamps, the AGA endeavors to have detailed and specific Standards that can help us keep the industry accountable.
Here's what organizations are saying about the AGA accreditation process:
"Just a note to say that we've gone through three different accreditation schemes this year and we've found that the AGA accreditation scheme was by far the most thorough and the most valuable to us, in terms of having us undertake a detailed critical review of all aspects of our operation.
Thank you for getting such a good accreditation scheme up and running. I'm sure AGA will have the effect of improving GAP experiences for students on any AGA accredited program.
Best Wishes, Scott."
"The accreditation process was a productive and positive experience for Thinking Beyond Borders. We appreciated the structured approach to reflecting upon our systems and programs. We were able to take clear steps to improve our systems and celebrate the areas where we were already doing good work. We're proud of our AGA certification, but we're also appreciative of how the process has made us a stronger organization."
Robin Pendoley, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Thinking Beyond Borders."
The current Standards certifications are:
The Standards categories are constantly under review, however, each applicant organization will need to select which categories they seek to become accredited for. Organizations are only AGA Accredited for those certification categories which they apply to and for which they successfully pass review.
Philosophy & Integrity:
(experiential pedagogical elements, staff training, financial responsibility, admissions, student supervision, insurance, incident reporting, etc.)
This certification is one that every AGA applicant organization will have to pass. Every organization that carries the AGA Seal of Accreditation has been vetted to ensure that they have a high degree of integrity such that, for instance, their materials reflect the actuality of their programs, the staff (both office and non-office) function with an academic and ethical standard that is beyond reproach, and that they are honest in every communication. Integrity of pedagogy, financial responsibility, marketing, recruitment, clarity of program rules, documentation standards, admissions processes, student supervision, student insurance, staff training, labor rights and education (for staff and students), student-privacy (FERPA), mandatory incident reporting, abidance of all local laws, and cross-cultural awareness.
Every organization will likewise be required to include a detailed list of their students for pre, and post surveys in the interest of longitudinal Gap Year data collection. Organizations that don't function with a high degree of integrity sour the name of Gap Years and all reports to the contrary will be thoroughly investigated by AGA staff.
Backcountry / Developing Country Safety:
(defined as 1st-world medical care within 2 hours, developing countries, medical kits, supervisory support and training, membership in OSAC, etc.)
Organizations that take their students out of the "front country" - defined as 1st-world medical care within 2 hours - will have to apply for this certification. This is intended to include organizations that function both domestically with an outdoor element of these parameters, or those that function primarily in the 'developing world' where 1st-world medical attention is scarce and immediate access to reliable paramedics may be of concern. This certification will specify additional provisions for supervisory staff that include medical training standards, communication requirements, and a well stocked and sufficient medical kit. For those organizations that function overseas, additional provisions including State Department Registration, and membership in the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) (or equivalent if based overseas), will be mandatory.
(inclusion of community, planning, supervisory training, etc.)
This is for organizations that practice service-learning as part of their programs. It is challenging work to volunteer responsibly - not only with respect to the students practicing the volunteering, but also to the individuals and communities who are intended to benefit from their service. Thus, a high degree of planning for community inclusion, project longevity, and potential positive and negative impacts must take place. Typical activities that might count as volunteering would be teaching, construction projects, or environmental projects. AGA have recently partnered with Global Service Learning as a partner in the development and implimentation of their Fair Trade Learning standards.
Independent Student Placements:
(independent, student preparation, internship vetting, contingency plans, etc.)
This is intended to cover organizations that have as a component to their program a more independent approach. Organizations that will require an application for this certification will have fewer direct supervision mandates for their staff, and more emphasis on adequate preparation for the student. Regular communication will be required and an adequate safety net to ensure proper student-vetting, as well as a proper internship and ground-supervisor vetting.
(outsourcing of activities, continued AGA compliance, etc.)
Many organizations make use of expert partner-organizations to add to their students' experience - this could mean going SCUBA diving, or even trekking or bungee jumping - but in every case where an AGA Accredited Organization incorporates such partnerships, simple checks will be required to insure that there's a clear and documentable understanding of whom is responsible for what (e.g., equipment, medical staff, insurance), and to ensure that AGA's Standards are continued throughout whatever partnerships are created. Encouragements for locally owned, financially responsible, culturally sensitive, environmentally conscious partnerships are a hallmark of this certification. Organizations that 'outsource' for home stays, language classes, SCUBA classes, treks, transportation companies, or adventure activity organizations are chief among those that will require the Partnerships Certification.
The Accreditation process for the American Gap Association is designed to be substantive in its enforcement and verification process. Applicant organizations must fill out a lengthy application for each certification, then undergo a two-part verification process that includes the organization, and student experiences. Where appropriate, and on a case-by-case basis, AGA staff will also seek independent verification of partners (i.e., non-profits, language schools, internships). Once submitted to AGA, the actual application will be evaluated by a team of three people: one from AGA, and two from the Board of Advisors. AGA advisors and staff all sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to protect the great efforts AGA members have gone through in developing their own materials. The average time for accreditation is taking approximately 8 months from the point an application is received. Organizations that are unable to meet our basic standards will be coached through the processes they need for improvement and will be encouraged to reapply. Full re-evaluation will take place every four years.
Organizations, once accredited, will be issued a badge for their websites and marketing materials to show their commitment and proven ability to orchestrate the highest quality programs. Unfortunately, because accrediting each individual program within an organization would be untenable, AGA strives to instead take a sampling of a portion of any organization's programs and test their ability to meet the Standards.
The pathway to becoming Accredited looks like this:
ENGAGEMENT LETTER: Organizations interested in applying must first fill out the Engagement Letter that outlines what the process looks like, explains some of the judicial components for enforcement of the AGA Standards, and explains the costs.
IN PROCESS: This is the first stage. An organization that is in the process of applying wears this title. The initial application will by far be the most significant commitment of time for any organization, but one that has a good records keeping system that's somewhat centralized should be able to fill out the application in a concerted few days of work. . . . Think of this as like applying for a grant. The time for review should take approximately 3-5 weeks from the receipt of your application, at which point either full Accreditation will be awarded (and all the perks therein), or, a follow up of questions may be needed. The goal of the AGA is to ensure the highest quality of program for any student attending an AGA Accredited Organization. In some cases, while an organization may be 90% to that point, some time and coaching will be required to close the final 10% gap.
AGA ACCREDITED ORGANIZATION: Of course this is the intent - to set an industry standard that is so committed to the highest calibers of both safety and quality. Review will take place after two years, and then every four. Of course, AGA will be available on an as-needed basis to support Accredited Organizations.
NON-ACCREDITED PROGRAMS: In some cases, either organizations may not want to commit to so many safeguards, . . . in other cases an organization may simply not fall under the category of Gap Year as defined by the American Gap Association. These should be construed as less-established Gap Year organizations - though not necessarily ones to stay away from. Students and Parents are encouraged to do their research prior to joining a Non-Accredited Program.