Note from Holly:  In a past life I was a foreign credentials evaluator for a company called the International Education Research Foundation.  I left the field shortly after I got married in 1998 but wrote this article for About.com based on my experience.  The article is about six or seven years old, but the information still holds true.

Introduction
Many people, both in the U.S. and abroad, have never heard of foreign credential evaluation. During my ten years as an evaluator, I can’t tell you how many times I’d get a blank stare when I told people what I did for a living. My well-practiced response: “I evaluate foreign educational credentials in terms of U.S. educational equivalence for the purpose of immigration, licensing, further education, etc.” Simple and to the point, right? Not exactly.

Despite it being a relatively unusual field to be involved in, the field of foreign credential evaluation is growing rapidly, and it has evolved a great deal over the past thirty years. In the beginning, educational equivalencies in the U.S. were generally determined by counting the number of years a person had studied in a foreign country and then comparing it to the level of education a student would have completed in the same number of years in the U.S. Little consideration was given to the quality of education received or to the fundamental philosophical differences that exist in the educational systems of different countries. Evaluation standards and methodology have become more sophisticated over the years, however, and what was once a fairly black and white field has become colored in shades of gray.

A Brief History
Originally, the task of foreign credential evaluation was left up to the U.S. Department of Education through the Foreign Credential Evaluation Service (FCES). Between 1966-69, however, the FCES was curtailed, and finally terminated in 1970. Unlike many foreign countries, there are no national government standards for assessing foreign educational credentials in the U.S. Since 1970, the evaluation of foreign credentials has largely been done by private credential evaluation services or through the admissions offices of colleges and universities. National guidelines for assessing foreign educational credentials have come primarily from placement recommendations developed by the National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Educational Credentials (the Council), but this is not a government agency and their recommendations are non-binding. It should be noted, however, that the Council has existed since 1955 and their guidelines generally hold a good deal of weight with many institutions and agencies in the U.S. Individual evaluation agencies, colleges, and universities also develop their own evaluation policies, many of which are at least loosely based upon the guidelines recommended by the Council.

Complications & Confusion
If all of this sounds rather confusing so far, you’re right. Since there is no government agency that oversees the evaluation of foreign credentials in the U.S., not all services operate in the same way. In addition, not all services use the same criteria for evaluating credentials. That is, you might get different educational equivalencies for the same credential, depending upon which credential evaluation service you decide to submit your documents to. Furthermore, many colleges and universities in the United States perform their own credential evaluations, and the criteria for admission to one institution might be vastly different than that of another.

Example:
My husband has a bachelor’s degree from a recognized university in the UK, while his business partner completed a Higher National Diploma (HND) program in the UK. Both were recruited to come to the U.S. to work in the computer games industry, and in order to obtain their Visas (H1-B and J-1), both needed a foreign credential evaluation. The same evaluation service completed both evaluations, and both received U.S. bachelor’s degree equivalencies.

This is all well and good, except for two things. The first is that in the UK, the HND is not considered to be at the same level as a bachelor’s degree. If a person who completed an HND wants to transfer to a university level program in the UK, they will generally be admitted to the second year of a bachelor’s degree program at a UK university. Based on this information, is it really proper to equate these two credentials to the same thing in the U.S.?

The second problem is that there really isn’t an academic program in the U.S. that is comparable to the HND. For this reason, evaluators will often interpret it differently, depending upon the policies of the individual office. The credential evaluation service that completed these evaluations equated the HND to a U.S. bachelor’s degree, however, the evaluation service I worked for would have equated it to completion of three years of university level coursework in the U.S. Is one service right and the other wrong? No, not necessarily. Each service took the information available about the HND and interpreted it in a different way, but neither is more correct than the other.

To complicate the situation further, let’s say that my husband’s partner decides he wants to further his education in the U.S., so he applies for a master’s degree program. Don’t forget that he has already worked in the U.S. for almost 10 years as a “bachelor’s degree equivalent,” which should mean that he has, at least on a basic level, fulfilled the requirements for admission into a master’s degree program in the U.S. As part of the application process, the admissions office at the university completes an evaluation of his HND and determines that he does not have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree and that he will have to transfer into a U.S. bachelor’s degree program, requiring at least two years of additional requirements (what with general university program requirements and courses specific to the field of study).

This situation is not at all uncommon, and in my career as an evaluator, I had to explain the reasons for it to angry clients more often than I care to remember. Welcome to the world of foreign credential evaluation!

Types/Purposes of Credential Evaluation

Typical reasons for which a foreign credential evaluation is required:

  • H1-B (and other work-related) Visas
  • College/university admission
  • Professional licensing

Each of these situations require different types of evaluations. For example, evaluations required by the – INS for H1-B Visas are relatively simple in that they only require a simple equivalency statement along with some brief information about the institution where studies were completed, qualification of the evaluator, etc.  Evaluations for further education and professional licensing tend to be more complicated, and often require a list of courses completed and grades in addition to the equivalency statement.

The Application Process
While some of the requirements and guidelines for specific evaluation services may differ, the application process is generally very similar from service to service.  You will probably be required to submit some or all of the following:

  • A completed and signed application
  • Photocopies of your official documents (transcripts, degrees, certificates, etc.) in the original language
  • Official English translations of all documents
  • You may sometimes be required to submit your original documents, so be prepared.
  • A personal check, cashier’s check, or money order (the amount will vary depending upon which evaluation service you choose, what type of report you need, etc.)
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    Once your application and fee is received, the evaluation service will review your paperwork to make sure all required documents are included.  If something is missing, they will contact you by mail or phone.  Your file will not be considered “active” until all required documentation is received to the satisfaction of the evaluation service.

    Turn-Around Time
    The time it takes for your evaluation request to be processed will vary.  Some services take as little as ten working days, while others take twenty days or more to complete an evaluation.  Most evaluation services offer “rush” services which can take as little as 24 hours to complete an evaluation.  You can expect to pay a significant additional fee for rush services, and personal checks may not be accepted as payment for this type of evaluation.

    Even though there is usually an additional fee required for rush service, I recommend you ask for it anyway.  Most services offer 3- 5 day rush services for which the additional fee ranges from $25 to $50.  Paying this additional fee means that your file will be given priority and that there is much less chance that you will miss any deadlines.

    A Word About Altered/Irregular Documents
    Most of the credential evaluation services and other agencies in the United States have been operating for years and have a vast collection of sample credentials, not to mention staffs of experienced evaluators who have seen thousands of educational documents from countries all over the world. Furthermore, as international communication becomes faster and easier through the use of the Internet, email, and facsimile machines, verification of credentials has become increasingly simple. Most evaluators will not hesitate to seek verification on any credential that looks even remotely suspicious. Policies on how to deal with altered and/or irregular documents differ from agency to agency, however, most will cancel your application request with no refund, retain all documents submitted, and report the information to the appropriate authorities.

    Helpful Hints
    The following suggestions are meant to help you have the best possible experience with the evaluation service you choose:

    • Important!  Make sure that you choose a service that is accepted by the agency or institution that is requesting that an evaluation be done.  If you don’t, you might find yourself paying for two evaluations.
    • If you’re given a choice of evaluation services to use, call all of them.  As with most things, comparison “shopping” for your evaluation service can be beneficial.  Ask about prices, turn-around times, and get basic equivalency information.
    • When calling each service, ask to speak to a credentials evaluator who specializes in the country you studied in.  Ask them to give you a general idea of what U.S. equivalency you might expect for the particular degrees you’ve completed.  Keep in mind that they will probably not be very specific, as determining an equivalency without seeing documents is difficult.  However, get as much information as you possibly can.
    • Get the names of everyone you talk to and make notes about the information you get.
    • A few days after you submit your application, call the service to find out if it was received.  At this time, you might also be able to find out which evaluator will be completing your evaluation.  Make sure there is no further documentation/fees required. 
    • Make a note of the date your application (or more specifically, all required information) was received.  Based upon the turn-around time of the specific service, make a note to contact them two or three days past the date you expect to receive the completed evaluation.  For example, if the advertised turn-around time is 20 business days, count 22 or 23 business days on your calendar and make a note of it.  If you don’t receive it by this date, contact the service to find out what the status of your file is. 
    • Know that evaluation services make every effort to ensure accuracy with the reports they complete.  However, when you receive your completed report, review it carefully to make sure all the information is correct.  If it isn’t, contact them immediately–most corrections are made quickly and easily.

    What Happens if You Don’t Agree With the Evaluation
    While customer satisfaction is a number one priority of most evaluation services, there is no guarantee that you will agree with the results of your evaluation.  This might seem unfair, but consider the fact that foreign credential evaluation can be a very subjective process.   You (the applicant) have certain goals that you want to accomplish with the evaluation, and if for whatever reason the evaluation report does not facilitate these goals, it’s natural to assume that you will want retribution (whether that be a refund of fees paid or a change in the evaluation).  However, if an evaluation service issued refunds to every applicant who was disappointed with the results of their evaluation, they would be bankrupt.  This is not because the quality of the work is substandard.  The reasons for dissatisfaction vary, but often it’s because of misunderstandings about the methodology of foreign credential evaluation, unrealistic expectations, or simply a difference of opinion of the level of education. 

    Refunds are rarely given for dissatisfaction.  In cases where a rush fee is paid and the evaluation is not completed on time, a refund may be issued.  However, refunds are almost never given in situations where an applicant does not agree with the results of the evaluation, and most evaluation services clearly state this in their terms and conditions of service.

    If you believe that your evaluation report is in error, all complaints must usually be put into writing.  When writing to the service, be as specific as possible and if necessary, give facts to back up your claims.  Ask questions about anything you find confusing or incorrect, and ask for a detailed explanation in return.  Contact the service within five days of sending your inquiry and ask when you can expect a reply.

    Be prepared:  Evaluations are generally not retracted or changed except in the case of error. However, you have the right to an explanation of evaluation policy and in extreme cases, policies are changed when an applicant challenges a specific issue.

7 Replies to “Foreign Credentials Evaluation in the U.S.”

  1. Dirk says: July 28, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Thank you for a very insightful article, Holly. I can now better appreciate the processes in foreign credentials evaluation agencies and the groping in the dark which may sometimes occur leading to errors which then make constant customer complaints a sad reality of this kind of work. The HND example, which in Germany might be similar to the distinction between “Fachhochschule” and the more highly held university, helped to illustrate the difficulties in credentials evaluation. I am more likely to suspect confusion instead of malice now when those errors occur, although I marvel at how many of these companies act.
    I am one of thousands of people who every year learn of the existence of your former profession. As such, I am uncomfortably aware of the extreme frustration which exists on the customer side. In a second of indifference, an ignorant or confused evaluator can wipe out years of academic achievement and – in doing so – cause unemployment and huge barriers for the continuation of a career, all at the expense of the victim. Few things other than loss of life or loved ones are more unsettling than when the academic achievements on which your livelihood depends are stripped away in this manner.
    In my case, I studied harder than most students back when I obtained the then only possible U.S. bachelor equivalent in Germany (a Vordiplom (= “Pre-Diplom”) usually obtained in about three years following Gymnasium counted as one year), so that I would not miss the start date at an American graduate school to which I wanted to and did transfer for specialization and to finish my studies there. Now, a quarter century later the teacher licensing process requires that all those ancient undergraduate studies which were long superseded by an American graduate degree be re-evaluated because they happened in another country. I tried to shop around before settling on an agency, as you suggest (though not as well as you suggest, since I had not read your article yet nor made the experience just how unprofessional some of these services can be). What I found was that some companies I emailed would not reply at all. Some sent back form letters urging I send in an application, nonrefundable money and all. Only one bothered to maintain a correspondence of several emails, albeit they would not give me any details by which to gauge them. Ultimately I settled on this latter company, since that was the best I had gotten out of any of them. Since then, I have also tried to call potentially better companies (better as per the Better Business Bureau), and I didn’t get through to anybody or have my calls returned when I left a message.
    But back to what the company I hired did to me: they never contacted me about any irregularities. When their “evaluation” arrived, they had reduced my former B.S. equivalent to just three years of college studies, and if this wasn’t bad enough, they had included a list of my courses taken from my OFFICIAL and sealed university transcript but with a third taken off all my credit hours. I suspected they had erroneously assumed quarter hours and wrote them asking for an explanation and to please correct this. The evaluator wrote back insisting she had evaluated correctly and that my credit hours per year were irregular, and so “a conversion of my hours of study had been done in order to arrive at an equivalent number of US semester hours of credit”. I couldn’t believe the presumption. I wrote back (very politely) explaining how I had done my course work faster and asking I be evaluated based on the coursework completed rather than calendar years, but the evaluator bluntly restated she was right, not addressing any of my concerns. I then wrote the company president again explaining that my credits are real and translate to a total of 4 year studies when you don’t study through vacations, also asking him if my total of 123 semester hours (their Gymnasium evaluation of 24 added to the university’s 99) plus the Vordiplom certificate based on exit exams did not closely resemble a U.S. bachelor. He merely wrote back acting offended and stating that “there is nothing to suggest that you took an overload in any of your studies, which remain incomplete. Had you finished a degree in Germany your equivalency would of course be different”. Is my official transcript nothing? How about checking with the university before declaring the transcript wrong and substituting speculative numbers? I had told him about having finished my studies here, but he had to insult me claiming I never finished them. I find this kind of behavior very unprofessional. Where is accountability? Also, all these companies claim their role is only advisory, but this company clearly preferred to play devil’s advocate. I feel, the role of these companies is to explain foreign academic credentials in U.S. terms, not to rewrite them as they see fit without so much as an explanation on their “evaluation”. If I were to set up such a business, I would try a different business model, in which we would stick to explaining what the presented credentials probably come to in U.S. terms, followed by special notes (such as that the credit hours on transcript x are above the expected 30-34 credits per year), and attached photocopies of the documents from which we had worked, so that the target audience could know how we arrived at our conclusions and what fact-checking we perhaps had not done. The “evaluation” I received directly contradicts my transcript without explaining why and so leaves the certification board to wonder if perhaps this was a legitimate quarter hour conversion. This is deceptive to my grave detriment. I am now afraid that every other agency I hire might play the same dirty game with me. I ask myself, what is the purpose of going to the sometimes enormous trouble of making official transcripts available from institutions which normally don’t issue them, when the agency simply substitutes speculative ones and prepares a “course by course” evaluation based on the basis of a much less accurate document evaluation estimated by time served, discounting in the process the certified course credits and concocting its own version of a transcript to match it to this act of creative writing?
    I thank you, Holly, for letting us who are subjected to the indignity to have our studies affirmed know that we should and CAN expect to be given proper insight into an agency’s methods before we hire it, even as many just blow us off when we try to establish who is trustworthy and it may take calling all of them. Perhaps I will now be able to actually find a company which does give me the time of day before they have my money. I am unsure, though, how to ask about the time versus credit hours issue without waking sleeping dogs if this upside down logic of years trumping documented course load might be common in the field.

  2. Holly says: July 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Hi Dirk,
    Thank you very much for commenting on my blog. I am sincerely sorry about what’s happened. Having been out of the industry so long and not having specialized in the German educational system, I can’t comment on your specific situation, however, speaking for myself, I took my job very seriously knowing my work could have a vast impact on others. I did my best to explain and understand the reasons for our evaluation policy, but no doubt was thought to be ignorant or confused on occasion.
    I hope you are able to resolve this either with the service you initially got your eval from or from a new service.
    Holly

  3. Erika says: November 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Hello Dirk.
    I am very sorry about your situation. We would be more than happy to take a look at your documents and speak with you prior to completing your evaluation or even taking your money. There is no consultation fee and we will try to help you as much as possible. Please feel free to contact us at (956)350-4660. Please ask for one of the owners.

  4. Nguyen says: January 16, 2011 at 6:26 am

    Dear Holly,
    Hello !
    My name is D Nguyen.
    My works leads me to believe there are a national security issue and an unfair practice in language translation and notarization between the U.S and Vietnam.
    I know for fact that some U.S schools require English translation of academic transcripts performed by the N.A.C.E.S members while others accept the translations done by Vietnamese translators.
    This is the same truth for the US Embassy in Hanoi and General Consulate in HCM city Vietnam – accepting academic transcripts and diplomas conferring by Vietnamese schools which are translated and certified by the Vietnamese translator and notary.
    Each year it is estimated that there are over 50,000 U.S school applicants from Vietnam, however, only a small portion of the academic transcript evaluations and translations are done by N.A.C.E.S members.
    The average cost is about 300.00 for each application.
    This leads to unfair translation, evaluation and notary practices as many foreign students applying to American schools use Non-American services.
    Moreover it is also a national security issue. The US Visa officer also relies on this Non-American certified documents for screening and granting Visas’ into the U.S.
    Americans need jobs but the work is taken by someone overseas.
    This unfair practice must be stopped before it causes the national security alarms and the national unemployment rate to go higher than it already is.
    Please give me some of your thoughts.

  5. Tran says: January 18, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Holly West: “Evaluation standards and methodology have become more sophisticated over the years, however, and what was once a fairly black and white field has become colored in shades of gray.”
    I totally agree with you.
    I was wondering how many Naces or Accrao evaluator actually did the verification procedure which is call or mail the transcripts/diplomas back to the issuing school for authentical verification.
    The whole credential evaluation business is in need to be reformed.

  6. Holly says: January 18, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I’ve been out of the business for over 10 years and am unfamiliar with the policies of any of the existing evaluation services. So I really have no thoughts for you on this subject.

  7. hso15@yahoo.com says: April 7, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Tran:
    I agree with you, However, there are many respected colleges in the world where mail is not an accepted method for verficiation of credentials. In addition, Many international students actually certify the authenticity of their documents through official channels that can be verifiable in the U.S.
    For example, I am a Jordanian American citizen who graduated from a Syrian University. Upon my graduation, I certified my degree documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Syria who cauthenticated the stamps and signatures on my Bachelor Degree document. After that, I certified the same documents from the Jordanian Embassy in Syria to verify the authenticity of the Syrian authentication process to be accepted in Jordan.
    Upon my arrival to the U.S, I had hard times in evaluating my degree at first because the Syrian educational system rejects any correspondence regarding their degrees over the phone, Internet or mail. They only accept face-to-face methods.
    Add to that, Syria rejects issuing more than one document for graduation. It is even written on the degree itself. Therefore, I had to be very careful with my graduation certificate because if I lose itI will never be able to obtain a replacement. I know this sounds very stupid but that is the truth.
    In the U.S, I was able to evaluate my degree through a member of NACES and was able to continue my higher education here.
    Just to comment on Holly’s contributions, I think it is wrong to have the Federal government’s hands off this process. It is a serious matter of national security and all translations should be verified IN the U.S. In addition, there should be an involvement in evaluating any educational, training and licensing documents instead of leaving it to the privately owned firms and businesses. Let us not forget that any fake credentials may reveal deeper and more serious implications for our national security especially that some of these credentials are used to award Visas to the U.S.
    Thanx

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