Q: I've been researching gap year programs and keep coming across ones that are accredited. Is it necessary to go with an accredited programs, or are non-accredited programs just as good? What's the difference?
Unless you’re a seasoned traveler, or completely confident by yourself, it’s generally a good idea to join a program for at least the first part of your gap year. Programs offer support that’s not available when you’re on your own—plus, having other students around keeps loneliness at bay. But once you start looking into programs, things can get confusing, especially when you run into “accredited” versus "non-accredited” gap year programs. So, what does it all mean?
Because all gap year programs are unique, it’s hard to standardize what differentiates a “good” program from a “bad” one. Looking at the American Gap Association’s accredited programs is a great place to start, as those programs have gone through a rigorous process to get stamped with accreditation However, you shouldn't disqualify a program that’s not accredited—there are plenty of top-notch companies that may not have the staff or bandwidth to go through the lengthy accreditation process. Further, different educational bodies may accredit some programs, while many others simply choose not to be accredited.
For example, Dynamy, which was founded in 1969, is one of the country’s oldest gap year programs. It also chooses not to be accredited by the AGA. “Since we have such a long history, and a solid foundation within the gap year community, we definitely have our own legs to stand on in terms of what we do and how we do it,” says Kathy Cheng, former director at Dynamy. “We're also not international, so a lot of what’s laid out by the AGA doesn't even apply to us.”
She says that in some cases, any type of accreditation should be taken with a grain of salt. “We're breaking the mold on education, so having someone define what a gap year program needs to be doesn't always make sense. Are there certain standards such as safety and support that need to be considered? Absolutely, but gap year is transforming education, so it’s hard to say that your gap year must fit into these set criteria.”
To illustrate, she says, “If I picked eight colleges and said, ‘These are the best eight colleges out of the thousands that are out there,’ those eight may not fit certain students. And it's not because they're bad colleges, it’s because maybe those students are thinking outside the box more.”
The difference between a good program and a bad one could be as simple as whether or not it meets your needs, so accredited or not, aligning your interests should be the main focus.
Available programs span the full spectrum and can get incredibly niche. To start, ask yourself broad questions, like whether you want to travel, volunteer, intern, discover a passion, or interact with animals. Some gap year programs are tailored to specific skills.
As I mentioned last week, you can explore these options through Google, by browsing on GoOverseas.com, or by working with an educational consultant familiar with gap years. For example, one gapper who played lacrosse in high school entertained the idea of teaching the sport to kids in Costa Rica. Another earned his SCUBA certification and took on a conservation role that monitored the health of coral reefs in Australia.
While every program is different, Ethan Knight, AGA’s executive director, says the most successful ones share a few common traits. He suggests asking these questions:
- Does the program have a solid risk-management plan? A good organization should be willing to share this plan with you.
- What are their admission protocols? Who do they admit? How do they select students?
- Who’s on staff? Who are you spending time with on a daily basis? Ask for reviews and bios, then look up the team leaders on social media. Familiarizing yourself with the staff is a good way to gauge potential outcomes.
From there, it’s all about feeling out the program directors and poking around to make an educated decision. Nothing is ever perfect, but going with your gut can go a long way toward making the right choice. It may also help you to speak with other students who have graduated from a program. If names and numbers of past attendees aren’t provided, ask the program to send a few your way.
At the end of the day, this is worth repeating: the right decision is what’s right for your interests, and your goals, so don’t be swayed by an expensive or international program if you think you would gain more from a backwoods camping trip the next state over.
We're talking all things gap year here on the blog as we travel across the country. Keep up with the journey and send your questions to us @GapToGreat or by searching #aloftgapyear on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.