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New Standards Put Forward to Evaluate 'Gap-Year' Organizations

Taking a "gap year" after high school has a big appeal to students who can't decide what to study in college or, perhaps, are burnt out on studying altogether. But they still must decide what to do with that year off before resuming their academic studies.

Ethan Knight started the American Gap Association  just over a year ago to help students develop sound gap-year plans, whether they are traveling, volunteering, or working in the U.S. or overseas.

Last July, AGA developed the first set of standards for gap-year organizations. To become accredited, organizations must meet several criteria that demonstrate the program is a good value. Knight, who said his own gap-year experience in the late '90s—a trip to India, Tibet, and Nepal—was "life changing," wants to make sure organizations are doing their best to provide international service learning.

Rather than just Googling the name of a gap-year organization, Knight said he hopes that having a formal process to vet programs will legitimatize the industry.

"We want to be able to discern who are the good ones and who are not," he told me in a phone interview.

Anyone can download the 54 pages of standards that organizations have to go through in order to get the AGA's stamp of approval, which comes from Knight and his nonprofit organization's board. So far, 22 organizations are actively involved in the application process, such as Gap Year South Africa and Dynamy Internship Year, and one (Thinking Beyond Borders) has completed it successfully. 

The process covers issue of safety, transparency of policies, and outcomes for students. Once organizations provide the documentation, Knight then independently verifies the information with students in the field.

"It's important for me that [the process] has teeth," said Knight, who has worked with gap-year and educational programs for the past 13 years.

As more students embark on gap-year experiences, Knight hopes to raise awareness of the value of the experience and encourage students, counselors, and parents to be wise consumers. While students often piece together several experiences to make up a gap year, AGA considers two months a "bare minimum" to commit to a project, said Knight. He wants the information his association provides to help students find the best experiences and ones that they can afford.

The AGA website includes a planning list for students considering a gap year, including  20 questions to ask gap-year organizations before committing.

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