The Three-Year Bologna Bachelor’s Degrees: A U.S. and European Perspective

July 14th, 2017

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U.S. Perspective

At the invitation of Rafael Nevarez with the US Department of Education, Melanie Gottlieb, Deputy Director of AACRAO, and Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, Chair of AACRAO’s IESC, President of AICE, and President & CEO of ACEI, presented a session at the ENIC-NARIC meeting on June 26th in Copenhagen, Denmark. The topic of their presentation was the U.S. perspective on the 3-year Bologna compliant bachelor’s degrees. Joining Melanie and Jasmin was Allan Bruun Pedersen, Senior Adviser with the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science who presented the European perspective.

The U.S. representatives shared the results of surveys that were conducted by the Council for Graduate Schools (2005/2006) and IIE (2008/2009) on the three-year Bologna-compliant degrees and the 2016 AACRAO-AICE survey. The key take-aways from the most recent survey was that the U.S. perspective is still evolving and that, based on institutional policies, it is split between two schools of thought: qualitative versus quantitative or benchmarking versus year counting.

The absence of a nationwide admissions policy for graduate studies and a lack of cohesiveness in policy even among departments within universities are the challenges facing a standardized approach in recognizing the three-year Bologna compliant bachelor’s degrees. In addition, there are various players other than institutions of higher education (e.g. state licensing boards, USCIS and employers within state and federal agencies) with their own set of requirements and criteria. The fact that not all Bologna-compliant countries are moving in the same direction at the same pace, that the three-year degree model is not always used in a coherent way, especially in fields such as law, teacher training and medicine, and the lack of consistency in how ECTS credits are used (especially in master’s degree programs where designating credits for student-centered learning remains unclear), pose additional challenges for educators and credential evaluators in the U.S.

But not all is doom and gloom, as survey results also show more U.S. institutions are becoming familiar with the three-year Bologna-compliant Bachelor’s degree and modifying their policies. The three different admissions models employed by US institutions of higher education—open admission, threshold admission, and holistic admission—lend themselves for flexibility and variety when it comes to accepting three-year Bologna-compliant degrees. A cursory search of institutional websites demonstrated that some U.S. institutions accepted the three-year Bologna-compliant Bachelor’s degree for graduate admission, some accepted the said degree but required completion of a one-year bridge program, and some accepted the degree holder but also placed emphasis on GPA, and performance on GRE/GMAT exams in their final admission decision.

European Perspective

The European perspective, as presented by Allan Bruun Pedersen, confirmed the survey findings shared by Jasmin and Melanie, in that there has been progress in accepting the three-year Bologna-compliant degrees in the U.S. but it has been slow. According to Allan, close to 50% of U.S. institutions of higher education sill do not accept a three-year Bologna-compliant degree for access to graduate studies.  The European perspective leans more toward benchmarking, qualitative rather the quantitative year counting model. And using the Lisbon Convention approach, three-year degrees are recognized based on the following qualifications: level, quality, learning outcomes, and workload. However, the Europeans are also aware of the double standard such an approach holds, especially where there is still controversy over three-year degrees from other parts of the world, e.g. the three-year Indian bachelor’s degrees.

The different educational philosophies between the U.S. and the European education systems was also recognized, especially where in the US general education is a key component in the four-year bachelor’s degree program versus the narrower subject specific European bachelor programs. There are still many European countries where a US high school diploma (with its broader range of subjects and often with less workload in subjects preparing candidates for university admission versus the European general upper secondary access qualification with fewer subjects and more workload in subjects) is not considered sufficient for admission to the bachelor’s degree programs and the U.S. bachelor’s degree (with its general education component and less subject specific courses in major/specialty) may not provide access to graduate degree programs.

It is essential for European institutions to understand and accept the differences in that the U.S. places a greater emphasis on quantitative recognition criteria where completion of general education courses as well as subject specific courses are a prerequisite for admission to U.S. master’s programs. And, that functional outcomes, whether the program completed meet the quantitative (that is number of years and credits) criteria required by a professional licensing board. There is a paradigm shift in European educational systems towards output oriented learning versus outcome oriented higher education and there needs to be acceptance that different pathways can lead to the same learning outcomes. The outcome of a degree is not just subject specific knowledge, but also more generic outcomes: the ability to communicate, analyze, and team work.  One aspect to be appreciated about the general education component of the US bachelor’s degree is that it also serves the purpose of generating broader competences than just the subject specific competences obtained through the three-year European bachelor’s degree.

In closing, we are asked to embrace the long tradition of transatlantic cooperation and student exchange within higher education and recognize the different admission systems (open vs threshold vs holistic) that require different responses. If an institution has adopted the open admissions model, then both sides can accept for admission the three-year Bologna-compliant degree (to US institutions) or the US four-year bachelor’s degree (to European institutions). If admission policies are more restrictive, candidates need to be allowed to apply for admission (access) to Bachelor’s degree programs and their eligibility to be determined in accordance to the same criteria as for national qualifications and reviewed on a case by case basis and not be automatically rejected.

The gaps and differences between the two systems may not be as large as perceived. By basing admission (access) on a broader range of criteria that takes into consideration both the quantitative and qualitative approaches and the longstanding history of cooperation and student exchange we will help support the mutual recognition and understanding of the U.S. bachelor’s degree and the 3-year Bologna-compliant bachelor’s degrees.

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Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI).

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