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April 19, 2007


Higher education is no exception to the increasingly global society in which we live. With increasing numbers of international students and faculty applying to study and teach at the University, a thorough understanding of foreign academic credentials is essential to ensure academic integrity and appropriateness in placement.

But it’s difficult for each department or school to know the intricacies of every foreign education system. That’s where the International Admissions section of Pitt’s Office of International Services (OIS) comes in. Staff from International Admissions can help campus departments understand and interpret a wide variety of educational systems from around the world. Recommendations by International Admissions are an integral part of the graduate admissions process for many programs on campus and have been tapped by some committees reviewing faculty applications. Because very few educational systems parallel the U.S. educational system, OIS’s International Admissions section translates these foreign systems and grading mechanisms into terms that Pitt staff and faculty across the campus can utilize at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Whether a department is looking to verify the credentials of a faculty applicant from abroad, or wants to ensure that the foreign applicants to their program are being viewed comparably to the domestic applicants, OIS can help.

Understanding OIS’s systematic approach to credential evaluations lends perspective to why this service is so crucial to the successful administration of admissions committees across campus. An OIS credential evaluator first must have a solid understanding of the foreign education system in question before evaluating credentials earned within that system.

In order to conduct a formal evaluation of an academic credential, OIS requires an original language document, or a certified copy, in addition to a certified English translation. The OIS evaluator establishes a chronology of the applicant’s background, giving consideration to the level of study, identified by the number of years required to obtain the credential, advancement achieved through the foreign education system, the progression from general to specialized courses, and the sophistication of course content and teaching pedagogy. The OIS evaluator reviews the academic credential carefully for content and authenticity.

Key words unique to a country’s educational nomenclature can shift the balance in favor or against an applicant’s admission. Interpreters often translate titles with very different meanings into “diploma,” “certificate” or even “bachelor’s degree.” OIS evaluators consider whether an applicant’s program was vocational or academic in nature, something crucial to identifying appropriate placement. Was the program intended as preparation for university studies or higher non-university specialized courses? Did the home country have no additional schooling available? The OIS evaluator needs general knowledge of the educational system and its selectivity in the secondary and tertiary levels at the time the student studied, as those factors may have changed. The evaluator needs to know the grading scale that was used — was it severe or generous? Were there variations among schools in the country? How important was class rank in the native education system?

Once the applicant’s credentials have been evaluated, it must be determined how those credentials relate to the U.S. educational system, particularly in terms of the Pitt academic program in question. Recommendations for placement should maximize the student’s chances of success while maintaining consistency in the treatment of all students, both American and international. Common points of concern include the age of the applicant when a credential was earned, and whether professional experience can compensate for what would normally be considered inadequate background. Exceptions to eligibility requirements should be based only on overall applicant strength. A student who is admitted with less than the typical requirements should be very strong in terms of quality of preparation. In addition, a strong demonstration of English language proficiency is necessary.

OIS considers a wide variety of factors when making an admission recommendation to an academic department. In many cases, there is no absolute right or wrong as to how a credential should be viewed; there is no over-arching government body or national association with sole authority on the matter. This allows OIS to work with individual academic programs to tailor recommendations based on program needs. A credential that is viewed as excellent by one program may not be acceptable to another.

OIS tracks whether there is consensus among U.S. higher education officials on the evaluation of credentials from particular countries, as well as how political developments are affecting the education systems of specific regions or localities. When an exception to a commonly held interpretation is made, that exception is justified and documented thoroughly. Consistency in the analysis of foreign credentials, as well as thorough research and an eye toward consensus, are the keys to a successful foreign credential evaluation system. By being well-informed when establishing institutional policies and reviewing those policies frequently, OIS admissions staff can help to ensure that all international students meet standards that will allow them to function as well-integrated members of the University community.

George F. Kacenga is the assistant director for International Admissions in Student Affairs’ Office of International Services.

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