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Important Legal and Risk Management Considerations for Gap Year Providers

By Doug Stevens
Member, Litigation Practice

Gap years have long been common in Europe, but they are becoming more and more popular in the U.S. as students grapple with higher tuition costs and, more recently, tried to avoid virtual learning. A gap year is defined as a semester or year of “out-of-classroom” experiential learning, typically taken after high school and before starting a career or post-secondary education.

Many gap years may involve students traveling abroad or working full time to save money before they start college or technical school. But for other students who are looking for a more formal type of program that provides learning and enrichment opportunities, the not-for-profit Gap Year Association (GYA) can help fill that need.

One of the priorities of the GYA is to encourage gap year providers – private companies, experiential educators, and nonprofit organizations – to embrace these students and provide learning opportunities, as well as college credits.

While gap years offer many benefits to students, organizations that provide gap year experiences must recognize and prepare for the significant legal considerations for their businesses. I presented recently to the GYA Institute about some key steps providers should undertake as part of their operations to mitigate potential operational and legal risks. These included:

  • Drafting solid, well-written, and easily understandable liability waivers and vendor contracts that comply with the law of the governing jurisdiction
  • Having written policies and procedures that are clear, reasonable, readily available to participants and their families, and consistently enforced
  • Being familiar and complying with the rules and regulations of all countries, states, localities, and other governing bodies where you will be operating
  • Maintaining sufficient insurance to cover all key aspects and risks of your operations (it is critical to align yourself with an insurance broker familiar with the gap year industry)
  • Properly vetting and contracting with all vendors and subcontractors with whom you will be working
  • Hiring employees who are experienced, responsible, mature, have a clean background, and possess the proper temperament to work with your students, vendors, and other staff
  • Aligning yourself with a qualified risk management and safety professional who could help you develop an emergency response plan and otherwise assist you in reducing risks in all facets of your operations
  • Having access to, and regular communications with, qualified mental health and medical consultants who could help you be prepared on the front end while facilitating your response to situations that may arise on program
  • Communicating with participants and their families throughout the application and program in an open, consistent, and transparent manner and being readily available to answer any questions
  • Being honest in all marketing materials and avoiding exaggerations and promises you will be unable to keep

The benefits of a gap year for students are many and having the opportunity to educate and enlighten young people is also a win for businesses. With that said, it is critical to work with a legal counsel and other professionals who are experienced and familiar with this unique industry and to have processes and procedures in place to protect your organization from the unexpected.

Doug Stevens is a Boulder, Colorado attorney who has more than 15 years of experience providing legal and risk management advice to the outdoor recreation industry. He serves as a legal advisor for Cornerstone Safety Group, which is an organization focused on providing risk management and safety support to the travel and experiential education industry. Doug could be reached at 303-448-6728 or

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