Type 1+2+1 into Google and the search automatically -- and unhelpfully -- reverts to calculator mode (=4).
The figures also add up to an increasingly popular model for undergraduate dual degree programs involving Chinese and American universities. Students start and end in China in a program structure intended to avert U.S. visa denials -- by conditioning degree completion upon a student's return to China -- and to lower the cost of obtaining an American undergraduate degree (by halving the time spent studying abroad).
“The model was quite simple -- not simple to develop, but simple to describe,” said Jack Hawkins Jr., the chancellor of Alabama's Troy University, which pioneered a “prototype” of the model and has graduated 157 1+2+1 students since the program’s start in 2001. “It would allow students an opportunity to go to a Chinese university for one year, to come to Troy for two years, and then return to China for the fourth year, at which point they would receive two bachelor’s degrees, one from the Chinese university, one from Troy."
“The normal process is that a student goes abroad, and gets a degree, and that institution where they got the degree abroad is not connected in any way to an institution back home,” said George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities  (AASCU), which has provided an umbrella structure for 1+2+1 programs for its members in cooperation with the Beijing-based China Center for International Educational Exchange .
This June, five AASCU universities and 16 Chinese partner institutions awarded 75 dual degrees at a ceremony at Yunnan University, and 279 new 1+2+1 students are expected to arrive on AASCU campuses this fall -- a 90 percent increase over 2007. According to the association, 16 AASCU institutions are now involved, and 42 Chinese universities have participated since 2001.
“This is a program that requires institution to institution collaboration," Mehaffy said.
+(s) and -(s)
As Hawkins suggested, the 1+2+1 program is easier to describe than develop. Inherent in the structure is a need to clearly articulate degree programs across continents, and transfer credits back and forth accordingly. It can be complex, by student and administrators' accounts alike.
Yunbo Geng, a geography major at George Mason University who started at Southwest Jiaotong University, said that when a friend of hers started a 2+2 program (two years in China, followed by two in the United States), she started reflecting on the structure of her own.
“Our program, first year in China, two years here, then you have to go back to China and graduate there, and you get degrees from both sides. I think it’s -- how can I say this? -- it takes more effort and energy.... I just think this is a little bit complicated,” she said, adding that transferring credits requires a lot of legwork. She said that George Mason has accepted most of her Chinese credits, though not all (including a mandatory military training course).
George Mason , which graduated its first 1+2+1 class in June, maintains 12 Chinese university partners and offers 12 degree options that the participating students can choose from. “We know when they arrive on campus what their proposed major is, and so we have developed detailed articulation course plans for each major," said Madelyn Ross, director of China Initiatives for George Mason. "And it gets very complex because each university has their own courses that [students] will have taken, so each year we go through the students’ transcripts and any courses that they are bringing in that we have not already evaluated are evaluated by our faculty.”
“To make a program like this work, initially there is a very labor-intensive period," Ross added. "We’re still in it -- we’re not out of it -- but I’m seeing each year that the accumulation of information we have is making it easier."
“What’s in it for us is that we are receiving a group of top-notch Chinese students every year, who are undergraduates who would not otherwise, I don’t think, have access to George Mason," Ross said. "We are internationalizing our campus on a very basic level."
The undergraduate element is important here. While China is second only to India in sending international students to the United States, the vast majority are graduate students. According to Institute of International Education data, only 14.7 percent of Chinese students in the U.S. in 2006-7 were undergraduates. Many interviewed for this article referenced Chinese undergraduates’ historical difficulties in obtaining student visas, as, anecdotally at least, U.S. consular officials seemingly feared they’d be less likely to return home.
Yet, officials at several public state institutions cited the internationalization of their largely regional undergraduate student populations as a priority -- making the 1+2+1 approach particularly appealing.
"One of the first things I focused on was the recruitment of undergraduate international students," said Martin Bennett, director of international services at Ball State University, where most students hail from Indiana. "Those students have, I think, a much more significant impact on the campus than perhaps the international graduates might, just because undergraduates, by nature, are much more involved with the day-to-day aspects of campus life. The undergraduates get more involved with clubs and activities. They live in the residence halls."
'The Next Level'
Also complicating the simplicity of the 1+2+1 program design is the fact that many or -- at least at some participating colleges -- most of the students come to the United States needing intensive English instruction.
When an extra semester of English as a Second Language is needed, the 2 in the equation can quickly morph into 2.5 for some students. And some specific degree programs, with program-level accreditation, can also require extra time at the American campus. At Ball State, business students have to take 75 to 80 credits on campus, compared to 60 to 66 taken by other 1+2+1 students, according to Bennett. (Although, he added, many highly motivated students with extra English or business requirements still finish their Ball State coursework within two years, thinking nothing of 18-credit semesters.)
Northern Arizona University will have 1+2+1 students pursuing engineering for the first time this year, “with the understanding that it’s going to take a little longer than two years to finish that, possibly three or so,” said Daniel Palm, the university’s China Program coordinator.
Several university officials contacted for this article stressed, however, that they see the 1+2+1 programs as gateways to more extensive partnerships with Chinese universities.
“We do not believe that a relationship with Chinese universities based on Chinese undergraduates coming to NAU is a sustainable relationship over the long haul,” said Harvey Charles, Northern Arizona’s vice provost for international education and director of the Center for International Education. “We believe that it’s important to expand and extend these relationships to involve faculty, faculty exchange, for example, because we believe that through faculty engagement, relationships can become much more sustainable.”
“The 1+2+1 initiative has been a good starting place for us in extending our relationships with Chinese institutions, and we are now very much engaged in taking this to the next level.”