The Standards of best practice as developed by the American Gap Association are constantly being evaluated by Member organizations and the Board of Advisors to reflect the changing landscape intrinsic to this type of education. The Standards are meant to be applied to those areas 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 plan on taking their students on a short backcountry trip they will need to be in compliance with the Standard for a backcountry organization in addition to any others that might be more obviously relevant.
The current standards categories are constantly under review, however, each Applicant Organization will need to select which of the categories they are seeking accreditation for. Organizations are only AGA Member Accredited for those certification categories which they apply to and for which they successfully pass review.
The main certifications are:
INTEGRITY - This certification is one that every AGA Applicant Organization will have to submit. Every organization that carries the AGA Seal of Approval will have been vetted to ensure they have a high degree of integrity such that 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), and cross-cultural awareness.
Every organization will likewise be required to include a percentage (no less than 10%) of their students for pre, and post surveys in the interest of Gap Year data collection. For those organizations that function overseas, additional provisions including State Department Registration, and membership in the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) (or the equivalent if based overseas), will be mandatory. 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.
INTERNSHIPS - This is intended to cover organizations that have as a component to their program a more individual 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 important and an adequate safety net to ensure proper student-vetting, as well as a proper internship and ground-supervisor vetting.
VOLUNTEERING - This is for organizations that intend on doing volunteer work, service-learning, or "development." It is challenging nature to do work like this responsibly not only to the students, but also to the individuals and communities who are intended to benefit from this service, and thus a high degree of planning for community inclusion and project longevity. Typical things that might count as volunteering would be teaching, construction projects, or environmental projects.
ENVIRONMENT - This certification is intended as an extra certification that, though not mandatory, could be applied to every organization. This certification will outline a basic commitment of an organization to good stewardship of the environment. Offering carbon offset tracking, environmentally responsible office standards, and taking creative initiative to ensure that something approaching a "leave no trace" ethic can be upheld. Things such as water purification (to prevent extra plastic bottles in the trash), to encouraging biking at the office are examples of significant commitments to the upkeep of this shared resource.
BACKCOUNTRY SAFETY - Organizations that either 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 adequate medical kit.
Concurrent accreditation by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), can submit their accreditation status in lieu of AGA's.
PARTNERSHIPS - 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 Member 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 through whatever partnership is created. Encouragements for locally owned, financially responsible, culturally sensitive, environmentally conscious partnerships are a hallmark of this certification. Organizations that 'outsource' for SCUBA classes, treks, transportation companies, or adventure activity organizations are chief among those that will require the Partnerships Certification.
Accreditation standards for the American Gap Association are designed to be substantive in their enforcement and verification process. Applicant organizations must fill out a lengthy application, then undergo a three-part verification process that includes the organization, student experiences, and the independent site-locations of any included activities. Accreditation will typically take approximately three weeks from the point an application is received and the process is then verified with the Board of Advisors to ensure a uniform and transparent process. 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 two years.
Organizations, once accredited, will be issued a badge for their websites and marketing materials to show their commitment and ability to run the highest quality programs. Unfortunately, because accrediting each individual program within an organization would be untenable, AGA strives to instead take a sampling of half of any organization's programs and test their ability to meet the Standards.
The pathway to becoming a member looks like this:
APPLICANT ORGANIZATION: 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.
PROVISIONAL MEMBER: Organizations that have submitted their application and are either currently in review, or are on a coaching-track for full membership, will carry this title. The time for review should take approximately 3-5 weeks from the receipt of your application, at which point either full Accredited Membership 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 MEMBER: 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 every two years and of course AGA will be available on an as-needed basis to support Accredited Members.
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 organizations - though not ones to stay away from. Students and Parents are encouraged to do their research prior to joining a Non-Accredited Program.