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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.