Reflections on the Bologna Process: Examining the Evolution of the U.S. Perspective



By: Robert Watkins, The University of Texas at Austin, and Melanie Gottlieb, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers

As the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), more popularly known as the Bologna Process, is rapidly moving toward its twentieth anniversary in 2019, it would seem logical to take stock of its progress from a U.S. perspective. The Bologna Process began in 1999 at the University of Bologna in Italy with representatives from 29 countries and has now grown to include 48 countries, with the inclusion of Belarus at the 2015 Ministerial Meeting in Yerevan, Armenia. The goal in 1999 was to create the European Higher Education Area by 2020 that would include:

  • A series of new degrees that are based on a system of accumulated credits (European Credit Transfer System [ECTS]) and structurally break into three cycles (first degrees at least three years in length, a second higher degree, and a final terminal degree);
  • A document titled the “Diploma Supplement” that would display the degrees in a transparent fashion; and
  • New degrees that would be undergirded by a set of quality assurance mechanisms stretching from the program level to the areawide level.

Today, almost all the countries that are part of the Bologna Declaration have their degrees in place, based on ECTS credits; Diploma Supplements are more or less consistent, if not uniform; and all signatories have a national quality assurance agency linked to the areawide network and more and more signatories are adding the national qualifications frameworks that help with the quality aspect.

So what does this mean to U.S. credentials analysts? As we become more and more familiar with the aspects that make up the Bologna Process, the question of degree comparability to U.S. bachelor’s degrees continues to be the prominent talking point. The Bologna Declaration did not mandate three-year degrees, merely that the first degree be at least three years in duration. These three-year degrees would be worth 180 ECTS credits (the standard annual full load is 60 ECTS credits) compared to the 240 ECTS credits of a four-year first degree. Before it dissolved in 2006, one of the last acts of the National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Educational Credentials (The Council)—which provided the placement recommendations for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and NAFSA country volumes, guides, and workshops—was to approve a recommendation that two ECTS credits equals one U.S. semester hour. Consequently, the 180 ECTS Bologna-compliant first degrees are converted to 90 semester hours. Despite The Council’s recommendation, there is continued debate among credential analysts about the comparability of three-year degrees to U.S. bachelor’s degrees.

Here are some thoughts shared by our colleagues, Robert Watkins, Assistant Director of Admissions of the Office of Graduate Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, and Melanie Gottlieb, Deputy Director of AACRAO.

The question of three-year degrees and their comparability to U.S. four-year degrees continues to be a “hot topic” among U.S. international credential evaluators. What do you see as the reason for this continuing controversy?

RW: U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs), for various reasons, mostly financial, are more actively recruiting than ever before. Graduate programs, particularly in the non-STEM fields, are more eager to recruit. While China and India continue to hold the recruitment pool spotlight, Europeans are also eager for a U.S. graduate education. Recruiters and enrollment managers who are not as steeped in the traditions of international degree comparability often question why French, Danish, or Dutch three-year degrees are not considered “good enough” for U.S. graduate admission. The veteran senior practitioners in the field who “grew up” on four-year degrees, however, are playing a somewhat outsized role in issues of degree comparability, so there is a potential for clashing views.

MG: The decentralized and independent nature of U.S. higher education institutions means that there are more than 7,000 institutions that can make a decision about the “comparability” of a three-year degree to a U.S. bachelor’s degree. There is no central authority that can make this decision for all (or even the majority) of institutions. An added complexity is the variety of administrative and academic decisionmaking structures that exist at institutions. Are these decisions made by the admissions office? The international office? The graduate school office? The academic dean? The decisions regarding admission to a graduate program may be further decentralized within an institution, with different policies and standards for different academic programs administered in silos that may or may not share any knowledge or decisionmaking processes with the other departments or administrative units. Ultimately, these decisions lie with admissions professionals, credential evaluators, graduate deans, or faculty, or some combination of these professionals. Their viewpoints will vary and motivations may be competing, even within a single institution, and their approaches toward comparative international education will be quite varied.

How has the longevity of the Bologna Process affected this debate?

RW: The Bologna Process is now 18 years old, with most signatory countries having had laws in place for governing degree restructuring for at least a dozen of those years. The Bologna-compliant degrees and their Diploma Supplements are increasingly making their way to U.S. HEI admissions offices. As U.S. credential evaluators become increasingly familiar with these documents and continue to converse with applicants, the evaluators start to question why the more conservative viewpoint in degree comparison persists. As one of the longtime proponents of the need for a four-year degree, I have even come to better appreciate the arguments for the suitability of Bologna-compliant three-year degrees. The two most compelling arguments are: (1) the deep level of immersion that students develop in their major as a product of the European higher education system; and (2) the solid quality assurance mechanisms that are a critical facet of the Bologna Process—quality assurance mechanisms that may be lacking in other educational systems that contain three-year degrees. And, as we approach the 20-year anniversary, clearly the Bologna Process is not going away any time soon!

MG: What the Europeans have accomplished over the past 20 years is, quite honestly, unprecedented. The harmonization of the educational systems of 48 countries over two decades has been a mammoth task that has required tremendous coordination and resources. The sheer scale of the task means that, of course, progress has been somewhat uneven. This has led U.S. institutions to be somewhat cautious in adapting policies to match the vision of the European Higher Education Area.

How has your opinion on this issue evolved over time?

RW: In my answer to the previous question, I intimated my own maturation on this issue. There is no question that in my earlier days it was easier to consistently default to the policy that a four-year (or more) postsecondary experience was necessary to match the U.S. bachelor’s degree. Over the years, however, I have come to understand and accept a couple of caveats to this policy: (1) all three-year degrees are not created equal; and (2) deep intensive immersion in a discipline, even after only three years, compares favorably to a U.S. four-year experience, under certain circumstances, in terms of ability to do graduate work in that same discipline.

MG: When I was an institution-based professional, my opinion was mainly based on the philosophical approach that my institutions held. As a more seasoned professional who is no longer institution-based, I am an advocate for thoughtful consideration of institutional mission and a student-centered balanced approach to academic mobility and future employment. I see much more clearly now the nuanced differences between the evaluation of a credential and the possible implications of that evaluation for an admission decision at an institution and its impact on the student’s future trajectory.

What advice would you offer to newcomers in the field regarding this issue?

RW: In the perennial debate over benchmarking (i.e., taking a first degree, regardless of length, at face value in a comparison sense) versus year-counting, new folks need to pick one approach and be consistent with that choice. Because year-counting still holds a prominent place in the field, newcomers should strongly consider using this method. The old AACRAO publications contain placement recommendations determined by the National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Educational Credentials, which dominated the field for 50 years and consistently utilized the year-counting method. The AACRAO International Education Standards Council (IESC), which provides credential advice for AACRAO’s Electronic Database for Global Education (EDGE), also uses this methodology. But, as the newer practitioners gain more experience and confidence, look around, and strategically establish what is best for their institution, I hope they come to appreciate the difference between what is or is not comparable to a U.S. bachelor’s degree and (this is most important) take those differences into consideration when determining who is truly qualified for graduate study at their institution. They also need to attend NAFSA, AACRAO, and even European Association for International Education (EAIE) annual conferences, be informed about the debate going on throughout those conferences sessions, and join the conversation.

MG: I would encourage newer professionals to engage in this discussion at their institution and with other international education colleagues at the associations that Robert mentions. The very nature of U.S. higher education and the structure and diversity of admissions models and administrative structures in U.S. graduate admission means that a “standard” approach to the evaluation of three-year degrees is unlikely to emerge in the near future. As noted in the responses to some of the previous questions, there are a multitude of factors that influence an institution’s graduate admissions policies—institutional knowledge and experience, financial motivations, enrollment pressures, selectivity factors, faculty opinions and relationships, institutional relationships, and institutional politics, to name but a few. Ultimately, at the institutional level, one must learn to articulate the difference between the evaluation of the comparability or equivalence of a credential and the admissibility of the student. Engagement with the field will help to inform this discussion and it will serve the student, the institution, and the new professional well.

Do you think practitioners will continue to wrestle with this issue and, if so, how might the prevailing viewpoint shift?

RW: Yes, as long as U.S. and European (or European-style) higher education continues to be so different (i.e., basically, depth versus breadth), we will continue this debate. And as the younger folks become more knowledgeable and begin to question “the way we have always done it,” this debate will rage on. While I appreciate and encourage the debate, I think at some point, practitioners have to choose a standard—a standard that predominates within the field. I prefer that standard to be the year-counting approach for consistency sake, but I realize too that U.S. HEIs sometimes have to make exceptions—but those exceptions need to be for logical and understandable reasons.

MG: The issue of three-year degrees and graduate admission in the United States is complex and involves admissions professionals, credential evaluators, graduate deans, and faculty. The picture we present to our colleagues overseas and to our perspective students currently lacks coherence and can be considered a hindrance to mobility. It is incumbent upon U.S. institutions and international education professionals to continue to explore and articulate the factors that influence the admission of international students to graduate programs in order to educate and illuminate the profession and force the U.S. perspective to evolve. This fall, AACRAO will host a symposium in Washington, D.C., on September 18, 2017, to explore the issues and viewpoints of three-year Bologna-compliant bachelor’s degrees and how they are interpreted by admissions offices, evaluators, and U.S. immigration. For more information, visit