AICE 2017 Symposium Report: Setting U.S. Admission Standards for Three-Year Degrees

 

IEM SPOTLIGHT NEWSLETTER, VOL. 14, Summer ISSUE - August 2017

By: Beth Cotter, Foreign Credential Evaluations, Inc.

The Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE) held its second Annual Symposium on April 6, 2017, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The symposium was titled “Setting the Standard for Graduate Admissions: Three-Year Degrees and Other Admissions Challenges.” The event brought together AICE’s endorsed and affiliate members, representatives of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), university admissions officers, and other international education professionals to participate in an open dialogue on issues of equating three-year degrees from various countries to U.S. degrees. The diverse group of panelists and attendees provided in-depth insights on three-year programs from around the world, as well as methodologies and tools for evaluating these programs for continuing education, graduate admissions, and employment.

The symposium was moderated by Alexander Agafonov, PhD, Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer of Globe Language Services, Inc. The program was divided into three modules, each addressed by a panel of experts.

Module 1: Bologna-Patterned Three-Year Degrees
Aleksander Morawski, Director of Evaluations, Foreign Credits, Inc. (moderator); Melanie Gottlieb, Deputy Director, AACRAO; and Robert Watkins, Assistant Director of Admissions, Graduate and International Admissions Office, University of Texas at Austin.

Module 2: Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree: South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka)
Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, President and CEO, Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (moderator); Ujjaini Sahasrabudhe, Director, Office of Graduate Admission, University of Southern California; and Annetta Stroud, Senior Evaluator and Training Coordinator, AACRAO.

Module 3: Beyond South Asia and Bologna: Three-Year Degrees from Australia, South Africa, and Israel
Beth Cotter, President and CEO of Foreign Credential Evaluations, Inc. (moderator); Ann M. Koenig, Associate Director, AACRAO International; Stephanie Ingvaldson, International Student Services and Programs, California State University-Sacramento; and Josh Trevers, Globe Language Services, Inc.

Introduction

The introduction to the Symposium featured a presentation by Melanie Gottlieb on the results of a survey that focused on the acceptance and treatment of three-year degrees by U.S. educational institutions. The survey was jointly developed and administered by AICE and AACRAO prior to the Symposium. There were 360 AACRAO member institutions (a statistically significant response rate) that participated in the survey, providing valuable data on their policies for considering three-year degrees for graduate admission. The results of the survey questions regarding how educational institutions treat three-year degrees varied, and it was noted that in many instances, the survey respondents selected “I don’t know” as their response.

Key survey highlights include:

  • 30 percent of institutions require a bachelor’s degree that is four years in length for graduate admission, 29 percent do not, and another 25 percent evaluate each file on a case-by-case basis.
  • 20 percent of institutions would accept a European bachelor’s degree that is three years in length.
  • 45 percent of institutions do not consider whether the international credential gives access to graduate study in the native system when making an admission decision.

These survey results led to the conclusion that there are divergent institutional opinions on three-year degrees and graduate admission and additional opportunities to further engage institutions in the discussion.

Summary of Module 1: Bologna-Patterned Three-Year Degrees

As the moderator, Aleksander Morawski began by providing an overview of and historical context for the Bologna Process. Importantly, it was noted that the Bologna Declaration stipulates that bachelor’s degrees are comprised of a minimum of three years of university-level study, but that many Bologna-compliant bachelor’s degrees exceed three years in length. The focus of the Symposium discussion was limited to bachelor’s degrees of three years’ duration.

There was general consensus among the Symposium participants that in the countries in which the educational system includes the equivalent of 13 years of primary and secondary education (not including kindergarten), such as the United Kingdom, the 13th year of secondary education makes up the deficit between the four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree and the three-year Bologna-compliant degree. Some countries do include kindergarten as the first year of primary education; however, because kindergarten is generally mandated in the United States as well, consideration of kindergarten as the 13th year of primary/secondary education was dismissed.

In addition, the issue of benchmarking versus year-counting was raised. Benchmarking refers to the consideration of the first postsecondary degree offered in a country (i.e., the “benchmark” bachelor’s degree for that country) as equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s degree. The philosophy behind benchmarking is based primarily on the fact that the benchmark credential (i.e., bachelor’s degree) qualifies the student for entry to master’s-level study in the home country and should therefore be accorded the same status in the United States.

However, many three-year bachelor’s degree programs lack the general education requirements found in the first year of the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree program. The liberal arts component is fundamental to the U.S. degree. Because of the narrow focus on the major field of study of the typical three-year degree, as well as in fairness to U.S. students who are required to complete four years of undergraduate study in order to be considered for admission to U.S. graduate schools, the year-counting approach was determined to be the most appropriate and equitable when evaluating three-year degrees. The year-counting approach awards one year of credit toward a U.S. bachelor’s degree for each year of university study in the home country.

In addition, it was recognized that, often, the student who holds a three-year degree with specialization in one major field of study may be adequately prepared to succeed in a master’s degree program in that same subject. Therefore, graduate schools in the United States have the option of admitting the three-year degree holder, on a case-by-case basis, when the faculty or admissions officer deems it appropriate to do so.

Functionally, the considerations by which evaluation companies operate can vary from those by which graduate admissions offices operate. Evaluation companies should apply consistent and transparent treatment of standards with regard to three-year degrees; moreover, they do not have the opportunity and means to evaluate three-year degrees for graduate admission purposes that the faculty at a university does, as described above. Therefore, the year-counting approach is appropriate for evaluation companies, while the evaluation should also include mention of the benchmark credential that was completed in the home country. Most credential evaluation agencies concur that benchmarking is usually the correct approach for evaluating a secondary credential, whereas the quantitative year-counting approach is most appropriate for postsecondary study.

Summary of Module 2: Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree: South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka)

Module 2 focused primarily on the Indian three-year degrees because India has the greatest number of students applying to U.S. institutions and seeking U.S. visas. (The discussion centered on the bachelor of arts [BA], science [BS], commerce [BCom], and business administration [BBA] and did not include the four-year engineering, technology, and other professional degrees.) Following close behind India are Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries that are increasingly moving toward four-year bachelor’s degrees. In India, the University of Delhi experimented with offering a four-year degree in 2013; however, the University Grants Commission quickly shut this program down citing that it was not in sync with India’s national education policy.

Although some in the world of credential evaluation have suggested that a three-year Indian degree can be equated to the four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree based on the Indian institution’s ranking and the student’s degree classification, the Symposium participants agreed that these considerations are not valid. Universities in India participate in accreditation on a voluntary basis, with only about one-third or less of all Indian universities participating, which means that institutional rankings are somewhat arbitrary and certainly not inclusive. In addition, degree classification is often not a valid assessment tool because grades can be inflated. Furthermore, the classification is often based on third-year results only and not the student’s overall academic performance over the three-year period.

As is the case with other three-year degrees discussed in Module 1, the Indian three-year degree lacks a holistic curriculum that includes a liberal arts foundation. Although the student may have advanced skills within the particular major, the basic curriculum is not well-rounded and the student may struggle once admitted to a U.S. graduate school. Anecdotal evidence reveals that three-year degree holders often exhibit shaky performances in U.S. graduate schools, but more studies are needed to track and assess their academic success.

As with the Bologna-compliant three-year degree holders, the Indian three-year degree holders may be admitted to graduate programs when faculty members pressure institutions to admit these students. In the past, some graduate schools have addressed the problem of admitting three-year degree holders by offering pathway and bridge programs. However, these programs lack the appeal and incentive to motivate graduate school applicants and have not always been completely successful.

There was also discussion of the one- or two-year Indian Post-Graduate Diploma (PGD) and the first year of a two-year Indian master’s degree when considered in combination with the three-year bachelor’s degree. Some credential evaluators think that when year-counting, the student who holds a legitimate three-year university degree plus an additional year of university study (PGD or first year of master’s degree), resulting in a total of four years of university study, does have the equivalent of a four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree. During the discussion, some Symposium attendees contended that the final examinations at the end of the first year of the Indian master’s degree program do in fact represent completion of a benchmark. However, others argued that since the PGD is not a benchmark degree in India, and since the first year of a two-year master’s degree is not a benchmark credential in India, neither completion of a PGD nor completion of the first year of an Indian master’s degree should be considered to be equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s degree. Symposium participants could not reach an agreement on the equivalency of these degree combinations to the U.S. bachelor’s degree.

There was, however, agreement that functional outcomes of holding a three-year bachelor’s degree do matter. Even when a U.S. institution decides to admit a three-year degree holder to a graduate program, that student still holds a three-year bachelor’s degree after graduation. This can present a problem for the graduate who wants to apply for professional certification in a field that requires the completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree. In general, the Symposium attendees agreed on the recommendation that Indian three-year degrees should be treated as three years of undergraduate university study in the United States and not as equivalent to a four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree.

Summary of Module 3: Beyond South Asia and Bologna: Three-Year Degrees from Australia, South Africa, and Israel

Australia
Traditionally, Australia has offered a three-year (ordinary) bachelor’s degree followed by a one-year (honors) bachelor’s degree in an area of specialization (major). The three-year ordinary bachelor’s degree (e.g., BA, BS, BCom, B App Sci, BBA) was the focus of the discussion at the Symposium; four-year degrees in engineering, education, and other professional fields were not considered. Within Australia, the three-year degree is often accepted for access to higher education degrees, although the student will likely be required to complete a two-year master’s degree rather than the one-year master’s that is offered to holders of the honors bachelor’s degree.

There was general agreement among the Symposium participants that the honors bachelor’s degree, representing four years of undergraduate study, is equivalent to the U.S. bachelor’s degree. However, some participants noted that they do treat the three-year bachelor’s degree as equivalent to the U.S. bachelor’s degree. Specifically, California State University-Sacramento (SAC State) admits student who are holders of three-year degrees to its graduate school.

A discussion ensued around the reasons why SAC State made this decision. SAC State is seeking to grow the number of international students in its graduate programs, therefore, it has strategically established policies to admit qualified international three-year degree applicants. The Symposium attendees agreed that U.S. institutions have the autonomy and the right to make this kind of graduate admissions policy decision, where the decision aligns with that institution’s goals and mission.

On the other hand, the participants agreed that for highly selective institutions and evaluation services that seek to treat U.S. degree-holders equitably and for those that do not make decisions for institutional purposes, it is appropriate to treat the three-year ordinary degree as three years of study toward a U.S. bachelor’s degree, while treating the three-year degree plus the one-year honors degree as equivalent to a U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree.

In AACRAO’s EDGE database, a much-referenced online credentialing resource, it recommends equating three years of university credit for the three-year degree. However, Ann Koenig, a panelist at the Symposium, reminded the group that it is important for a university to determine its own philosophy toward three-year degrees and how that aligns with the institution’s goals and mission and then to select a credential evaluation service that offers a similar treatment of the three-year degree.

South Africa
As is the case in Australia, South Africa typically has three-year BA, BS, and BCom degrees followed by one-year BA, BS, and BCom honors degrees. AACRAO, as well as most AICE-endorsed members, treat these degrees as being equivalent to three years of transfer credit for the three-year degree, thus equating the honors degree with the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree. Again, individual educational institutions may choose to grant admission to their graduate programs after completion of the three-year degree, depending on their institutional goals and level of selectivity.

Many countries, including South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Scotland, to name a few, have now developed qualifications frameworks as reference guides to be used in place of the traditional degree models of the past. The South African qualifications framework, for example, is an essential reference for evaluation purposes because within it one sees that, for example, not all bachelor of science degrees that are at Level 7 (which could have been either Level 6 or Level 7 pre-2009) consist of the same number of credits. Take the example of two universities located in South Africa: 360 credits (three years of study) are required for a Level 7 BS degree in physical sciences at the University of Pretoria, but 428 credits (three-and-a-half years of study) are required for a Level 6 BS degree in physical sciences at the University of Venda. Clearly all South African BS degrees are not equal quantitatively, and these differences must be considered in a fair and thorough credentials evaluation.

In general, evaluators should refer to current resources for current degrees and to historical resources for degrees issued in the past. One should also recognize that within a specific qualifications framework, not all qualifications at the same level mean the same thing, e.g., some may be academic while others are vocational or technical in nature. Finally, it is important to note that three-year degree holders from Australia and South Africa face the same issues related to professional certification that have already been discussed within the first two modules.

Israel
Both the AACRAO EDGE database and the endorsed members of AICE treat the Israeli three-year bachelor’s degree as equivalent to the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree. This determination is based on historical precedent; placement recommendations made by the Council on Evaluation of Foreign Student Credentials in 1976, and others since, have all suggested equal treatment of the Israeli university three-year bachelor’s degree and the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree.

Some of the reasons given for equal treatment of the two degrees include: the awarding of advanced placement credit for passing the Teudat Bagrut (high school Matriculation Certificate) examinations, comparability of the Israeli credit system to the U.S. credit-hour system, the maturity of Israeli students who typically complete two or three years of compulsory military service prior to entering university, a campus life that reflects a more mature student population with limited extracurricular activities and distractions, and the expectation that Israeli students work year-round, including completing written assignments and preparing for examinations during the summer months.

Despite these supplemental qualifications, the Israeli student completes 12 years of primary/secondary education, not 13. Also, the degree is still a three-year degree regardless of the number of credits assigned to it. Furthermore, this three-year degree is similar to other international three-year degrees in that it typically does not include the general education component found in U.S. degrees, and the Israeli student usually has a narrower focus on one or perhaps two majors. For these reasons, it appears somewhat arbitrary to equate the Israeli three-year degree to the U.S. four-year degree. However, for political and historical reasons, at this point in time, it would be difficult to reverse the precedent. The Symposium attendees were undecided about how the Israeli three-year degree should best be evaluated.

Breakout Interactive Session

The Symposium included a breakout session that allowed participants to interact with the panelists in a closer, less formal setting. This resulted in the most productive and informative discussion on the topic of three-year degrees. The breakout groups presented the results of their discussions and identified the common outcomes. The following conclusions reflected the general consensus of the Symposium participants:

  1. It is best to use the quantitative method (year-counting) to evaluate postsecondary studies from foreign countries.
  2. It is useful to acknowledge completion of the home country benchmark credential in addition to the number of years of postsecondary study completed.
  3. It is necessary to always review the full educational history of an applicant (not just his or her three-year degree).
  4. It is useful to acknowledge home country access outcomes for a particular credential.
  5. Evaluation recommendations should be based upon primary sources appropriate to the credential era.

AICE will use these outcomes and other insights from the Symposium to update its Credential Evaluation Standards, which are published on AICE’s website at www.aice-eval.org. The International Education Standards Council (IESC), which makes placement recommendations for AACRAO’s EDGE database on global higher education, will continue its work with its European colleagues to fine-tune the placement recommendations for Bologna-compliant bachelor’s degrees.


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