February 22, 2021

Tips On How to Vet Programs from Interim's Director of Research, Kate Warren

The specific experience I want to share from my 21 years as Director of Research, is the important vetting process of researching gap year program provider websites, often the first step for anyone interested in learning more about gap years. This information will ideally help as you prepare to look at websites. I say “prepare” because the better prepared you are with an understanding of how to vet options, the more savvy you will become about honing in on options of most interest by establishing a sound basis for comparing programs and organizations for quality and best fit. Time spent in preparation will make you a smarter and better consumer and will make for a successful and rewarding gap experience, or series of experiences. 

There has been a steady increase in numbers of US students embarking on gap years which is now sanctioned by an increasing number of colleges and universities allowing deferrals. In tandem with that increase is an explosive emergence of gap year program providers. I recently performed a simple search for “best gap year programs,” “gap year programs for high school students,” and “gap year volunteer programs” with a staggering result of 157-351 million hits. To get a sense of how far the gap industry has grown, by comparison in May 2017 when I presented at the Gap Year Association Conference in Denver, the same search yielded just a half million to 22 million hits, which most of us in attendance thought was staggering!

So where and how do you start to vet and choose program options?

At Interim, in performing due diligence on program websites to identify those programs we may want to share with our families – which is my first step as gatekeeper of Interim’s vast database of vetted options – I allow, on average, 3-5 minutes to answer two key questions:

1. How easy or difficult is it for me to find who, what, where, when, cost? 

2. Is the information clear, concise, compelling, and communicative?

Once I have identified an option that successfully passes that initial test, I move on to the second and most important phase of my responsibilities: performing due diligence to be sure the program is legitimate and trustworthy. You might implement a similar initial test with your specific two or three key questions using a finite amount of time in which to find the answers. 

The second phase of my vetting process is much more time-consuming and requires not only looking at the site but also personal phone calls and/or Zoom chats, as well as staff site visits to programs which we do every year.

Keep in mind that each program type – facilitated group programs, skills-building intensives, internships, and volunteer options - all require a unique subset of due diligence questions – however, they all share my TLC Test. For me, failing any one aspect of the TLC Test sends up a ‘red flag’ and most often ends my interest in the option as a possible addition to our data base.

The goal in performing my TLC Test is to gain a level of comfort and confidence in recommending a provider to students and families. And remember, all the answers to these questions should be easily found on the website. Familiarize yourself with the answers you are able to identify in order to formulate a series of clarifying questions to ask when you reach out to engage in a conversation with the provider. It will provide you with the opportunity to dig deeper into what is shared on the website.

The most important component of my TLC Test is Transparency. Is the information provided in an honest, straightforward manner?

Some of the questions that may be helpful include:

  • Who are the principals? 
  • Does the site provide direct contact information, an email address other than “info@” a telephone number? 
  • Are the principals involved in the day-to-day operations? 
  • How far removed are they from what’s happening on the ground? 
  • Do they operate as a corporation? An LLC? A nonprofit? 
  • Can you find the Terms & Conditions? 
  • Is the cost revealed? Do they share what’s included? Not included? Are there additional costs?
  • What is the refund policy?
  • Is the site current? When was the last update?
  • Do the internal links work? 
  • Is the information current?
  • Is there a comprehensive Menu that directs to you the specific information you are looking for?
  • Can you easily locate the FAQs?

When looking at Legitimacy, I’m looking to see if the provider is reputable, do they have a favorable standing in the experiential gap industry? 

Some questions that may be helpful to you might include:

  • Are they licensed to do business by any state, federal, or educational entity?
  • Is there a Board of Directors? An Advisory Board?
  • Is the program accredited?
  • Are they members of recognized professional organizations? If so which organization?
  • Is there operational outside oversight?
  • What affiliations and or partners have they established?
  • Can you find favorable press?

Online reviews can be somewhat helpful but often can be biased. If you find negative reviews, my recommendation is that you reach out and ask for a corporate response and what, if anything, they have done internally to address the issue. 

When I’m testing for Competency, I want to know about leadership skills and professionalism, experience, and training.

Your list of questions might include:

  • Can I “Meet the Team?” by reading biographies that include educational and specialized training certifications? 
  • Years of experience in the field?
  • Can I see a photo to put a name to a face?
  • Can I reach members of the team directly by a personal business email address or direct telephone number?
  • Is the Executive Director accessible to me? How long has he/she worked for the organization? Where did he/she work previously?
  • How long has the business been in operation?
  • What qualifications are required of staff to work with students?
  • What type of training is provided to staff who work directly with students?
  • Is there a Code of Ethics?

Prior to embarking on your research of program providers, create a checklist, your own TLC TEST, a series of questions that are most important to you so that you can perform your own due diligence. Listen to your gut. Watch for the red flags. 

There are several very helpful resources to aid in your research that include vetting/accreditation bodies committed to standards of excellence and principles and practices as guidelines for good programming and have stringent criteria requirements such as the Gap Year Association, the Year Out Group, and the International Volunteer Association. 

Working with an accredited gap year counselor can definitely be beneficial in helping your family plan and navigate gap time. At Interim we have already done this program vetting for you as well as heard directly from students who have recently attended options you are considering.

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