‘The Ideal and the Real’

New report examines the challenges U.S. universities face in establishing international joint or dual degree programs and raises the issue of ‘credential inflation.’

November 12, 2014

A new report from the American Council on Education highlights the challenges involved when U.S. universities establish dual and joint degree programs with institutions abroad.

While joint and dual degree programs are often described as mechanisms for achieving deep internationalization of the curriculum, the reality is often different, the report suggests. Enrollment in these programs, in which a student earns two degrees from two separate institutions in the case of a “dual” (also called a “double”) degree, or a single credential endorsed by the two institutions in the case of a “joint” degree, is heavily skewed toward non-Americans – suggesting that the programs are primarily being used for the purpose of recruiting international students to American institutions. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of joint and dual degree programs surveyed exclusively enroll non-Americans, while 34 percent enroll a mix of foreign and domestic students and just 4 percent enroll only American students.

“The heavy skew toward enrollment of non-U.S. students draws attention to the intended purpose of international joint and dual degree programs, as well as the expected benefits to participants,” states the report, "Mapping International Joint and Dual Degrees: U.S. Program Profiles and Perspectives."

“The data suggest -- and when interviewed, a number of respondents agreed -- that [joint and dual degree programs] may be serving primarily as a mechanism for U.S. institutions to recruit international students. Particularly in the case of dual degree programs in which each institution sets its own requirements and awards degrees independently, there may be little interaction between the two partner institutions and their faculty, or any engagement beyond the transfer of credits back and forth. One respondent noted that collaborative degree programs are attractive in terms of recruiting abroad because they are ‘controlled,’ and students have essentially already been vetted through the partner institution’s admission process.”

The report continues: “A number of respondents indicated that they would like to see more outbound student mobility and greater reciprocity in collaborative degree programs, but they are not optimistic about prospects for movement in this direction. Low study abroad rates in the United States overall are indicative of a general lack of enthusiasm for mobility; the extra work required to fulfill requirements of two rather than just one institution may be an additional disincentive for many U.S. students to pursue a joint or dual degree. Respondents also questioned the ‘value added’ of a foreign credential for U.S. students, other than for those working in particular fields (e.g., international relations), or intending to pursue employment with international organizations. While this is the reality, the lack of participation by American students raises questions about the extent to which U.S. institutions are realizing the (nonfinancial) purported benefits of joint and dual degrees mentioned at the beginning of this report, such as increased (outbound) mobility and curriculum internationalization.”

A total of 134 U.S. institutions responded to ACE’s survey, with 89 of those providing detailed information about the specific joint and dual degree programs offered by their institutions. Respondents described joint degree programs as more challenging to administer than dual degrees, and identified issues related to academics – such as determining course equivalencies, language and cultural differences, and teaching and grading methodologies -- as more challenging to navigate than those relating to administrative “nuts and bolts” issues such as legal/regulatory and health/safety issues. Joint degree programs were far more likely to report challenges regarding accreditation processes (67 percent) compared with dual degree programs (41 percent).

Among the other findings, 78 percent of institutions surveyed said they faced no challenges in the area of academic freedom. For institutions with dual and joint degree programs in China, 33 percent reported “some challenge” in regards to academic freedom issues, while 67 percent reported “no challenge.”

For U.S. universities with dual and joint degree programs, China was the most popular partner country, followed by France, Turkey, Germany and South Korea. Dual or joint programs in business or the physical and natural sciences made up 60 percent of all programs included in the survey.

Survey respondents identified a number of challenges that speak to issues of the sustainability of the programs, many of which have been launched within the last five years: these include challenges in regard to student enrollment, shared commitment level and expectations with the partner institution, overdependence on key faculty and administrators who originated the partnership, and shifting institutional priorities and goals. 

On program design, the report notes that dual degree programs “come in a wider variety of stripes” than joint degree programs: “Students may receive the same degree from both institutions (e.g., a bachelor’s in English from each); in other cases, students receive degrees in two different fields (e.g., a master’s in public policy and a master’s in development). Or, there may be two degrees at two different levels (e.g., a bachelor’s from one institution and a master’s from the other). Mechanisms for facilitating these programs include credit transfer and/or double counting of credits, allowing courses taken at a partner institution to serve as prerequisites for higher-level courses, and requiring fewer credits for degree completion than for the equivalent stand-alone degrees.”

The ACE report touches on the issue of “credential inflation” and cites the University of Michigan as an institution that has a policy prohibiting the creation of dual programs that would offer two degrees from two institutions for “one body of work.” (Michigan does offer a dual degree program through its Joint Institute with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, but for that program students transferring to Michigan apply SJTU credit toward a Michigan bachelor’s degree before returning to China to earn a second bachelor’s from SJTU in a different field.)

James Paul Holloway, Michigan’s vice provost for global and engaged education, said via email that it is the university’s position that “awarding multiple and identical degrees in an international partnership for one body of work would represent a devaluation of the meaning of the Michigan degree and would dilute the reputation of both the U-M and of our partner."

"Perhaps more importantly, it does not serve any clear compelling purpose; it does not provide any clear value to the student. Not having such dual degrees does not dissuade our students from engaging in education abroad experiences, and does not discourage our faculty from building new and valuable partnerships.”

The University of Toronto-based higher education scholar Jane Knight recently raised the question of whether dual degrees are leading to “discount degrees” in an op-ed in University World News: “For many academics and policy-makers, double degree programs are welcomed as a natural extension of exchange and mobility programs,” Knight wrote. “For others, double/multiple degree programs are perceived as a troublesome development leading to double counting of academic work, thus jeopardizing the integrity of a university qualification, and moving towards the thin edge of academic fraud.” 

ACE’s presidential advisor for global initiatives, Patti McGill Peterson, said she thinks this comes back to issues regarding quality and reputation and how carefully faculty at the partnering institutions negotiate the terms of program design and delivery. She noted, however, that “if in fact there is an inclination that joint or dual degrees become a mechanism for international student recruitment, these issues will not be as carefully tended to and managed, potentially.”

There’s nothing wrong with the international student recruitment piece, Peterson said, but she’d also like to see institutions think more broadly about the impact of joint and dual degree programs on the whole institution.

“My sense is that we’re in the front end of this, we’re in the early stages,” said Peterson. “We’re really moving really quickly into this area of international engagement in higher education. There will be bumps in the road there will be distance between the ideal and the real and there will also be some who regard this mainly as a way to attract tuition-paying international students.”

"As these programs mature, as they become more varied and numerous, I hope that U.S. students will see this as an important option and as value-added for their education,” she said. “I hope as these programs continue that more and more of the folks we work with on the campuses, the presidents, the provosts, the senior international officers, will see the participation of our U.S. students in these programs as an important part of comprehensive internationalization.”


Back to Top