In the early 1990s, the then-presidents of Oberlin College and Stanford University floated the idea that the standard time for an undergraduate degree might be better at three years instead of four. The idea went nowhere -- at least in the United States.
But 45 European nations have pledged to make three years the standard time for their undergraduate degrees by 2010. Under "the Bologna Process,"  named for the Italian city where the agreement for "harmonizing" European higher education was signed in 1999, degrees are supposed to be sufficiently similar that they will be recognized from one country to the next, encouraging student mobility. What happens when some of that mobility involves graduate study in the United States?
Should American graduate schools recognize three-year degrees and admit such students to graduate programs? If they don't want to consider three-year degrees as automatically equivalent to the standard four, how do they decide how to handle such applicants? If American graduate schools are seen as treating European applicants unfairly, will the best European talent stay on the other side of the Atlantic? If American graduate programs start admitting three-year degree holders from Europe, do they have any basis for turning down American students who have finished three years of bachelor's work and feel ready to move on? And will answers to these questions challenge the traditional norms of graduate admissions in the United States, in which departments rather than central offices make the key decisions?
These were among the thorny questions that brought a number of academic leaders from the United States and Europe together on Saturday in Washington, at a meeting organized by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The outcome of these deliberations is also seen as likely to affect students and institutions in many other countries.
Australia, while not part of the Bologna Process, also has three-year degrees. So Australian educators want their students to be treated well in the United States -- while also recognizing that U.S. recalcitrance might result in more European students ending up down under. Interest is such that the Australian Embassy was the host for the discussions, for which a number of Australian educators made the trip to D.C. Canadian educators were at the meeting because their top graduate programs embrace the American model, but they also want European talent.
And the big question for many here was about yet another country: India, which also awards three-year degrees. While American universities don't like to boast about it, most have for years had no problem admitting graduates of three-year programs in Britain as being on par with American four-year graduates. Many of those same institutions would tell a three-year graduate from India (or elsewhere) to earn a master's degree or to complete more coursework before applying to American graduate programs. While that may have been doable when just a few countries' graduates were quietly granted exceptions from four-year rules, would it work if American universities opened their doors widely to three-year degree holders?
"This is a fairness issue that has a racial dimension to it," said Margit Schatzman, president-elect of Educational Credential Evaluators, which helps individuals and institutions establish the comparability of programs in and outside the United States.
Stanley O. Ikenberry, former president of the American Council on Education and the University of Illinois, moderated the sessions, and introduced the discussion by asking his American colleagues to imagine the world with "an academic Euro," in which European diplomas matched the clout that has increasingly come to the common European currency.
Ikenberry stressed that American educators couldn't assume that the issue wouldn't hit them. The Bologna Process goes far beyond just ensuring comparable degrees to encouraging European students to move about. "Mobility in and of itself is being valued," he said.
And the message from most European academics at the conference was that American graduate schools have no business thinking that a three-year degree represents any less preparation than a four-year degree awarded in the United States.
Christian Bode, secretary general of the German Academic Exchange Service, told the group that there was far too much diversity in the quality of American higher education to make any blanket comparisons between American and European degrees. In the United States, he said, "a bachelor's degree is not necessarily a bachelor's degree."
In an interview after his talk, Bode said European higher education is more homogeneous such that the rigor for a bachelor's degree from a "top" university isn't that different from one at a less prestigious institution. Given the quality gaps in the United States, "you have a problem in your own house," he said, before Americans can denigrate European degrees. Bode said that when evaluating European graduate student applications, American graduate schools should not draw any conclusions based on length of program.
What are American universities doing? Many appear to be shifting -- rapidly -- away from systems that have been widespread in the past, in which three-year degrees were automatically rejected or in which graduates of three-year programs were granted provisional admission, on condition that they take certain courses or perform at certain academic levels.
Daniel D. Denecke, director of best practices for the Council of Graduate Schools, presented data from a recent survey showing that more institutions are shifting to policies in which degrees are evaluated for comparability or applicants are evaluated for whether they can do the work.
Graduate School Policies on 3-Year Degrees
|Do not accept||29%||18%|
|Evaluate degree for equivalency||40%||49%|
|Evaluate candidate for competence||22%||29%|
The council also asked a question about non-European three-year degrees. The results indicate the universities with the largest foreign graduate populations are more likely to be open to accepting such degrees than are other institutions.
Graduate School Policies on Non-European 3-Year Degrees, 2006
|Policy||25 Largest Institutions||Other Institutions||All|
To non-Americans, the figures suggest that American graduate schools just need to learn more about the qualities of foreign students. Joe Hlubucek, counselor for education and science at the Australian Embassy, said that students from his country generally have no difficulties getting admitted to American graduate programs that have had a decent number of Australians enrolled over the years. "They are very well prepared," he said.
The skepticism tends to come from an institution that hasn't had many Australians.
In most of the public sessions, the general theme was one of the need for American flexibility.
Manfred J. Hampe, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt, in Germany, described the way his institution had shifted his program from one in which bachelor's degrees were awarded in four and a half years to three years. "We were looking for core competencies," he said, "the essence of what it means to be a mechanical engineer."
In an interview, Hampe said that he was entirely convinced that his graduates would be ready for American master's programs.
But not all North Americans were buying it. Randall L. Alford, associate provost for graduate and international programs at Florida Institute of Technology, noted that engineering programs in the United States have a tough enough time covering material in four years (many were once five). Gail Potts, director of graduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said she also had doubts.
Questions extended beyond engineering-focused institutions. Scott Moore, who works in graduate education at the University of Toronto, said that his institution routinely accepts three-year degrees from Britain (assuming that more has been covered in secondary school) and Israel (where degree programs are particularly intense), but that's it. Moore said he was convinced that Toronto would need to consider its policies, but that he wasn't sure anything would change.
At one point, some of the Americans asked the overseas educators who were extolling the value of three-year degrees whether they ever questioned the three-year credentials they received from other countries. The responses were that nobody was saying that graduate schools didn't have the right to seek more information about three-year degrees, but that they needed to do so without bias.
How to Evaluate 3-Year Degrees
In Australia, individual graduate schools evaluate applications and have the right to decide whether an individual's qualifications are appropriate. But the Australian government maintains Country Education Profiles  -- which cover more than 100 countries and extend to individual universities -- so that an admissions decision can be based on precise information about what a degree means in a given country.
In addition, European universities have also agreed to issue "diploma supplements,"  which provide detail -- in English -- on the academic programs for which students receive their degrees.
Several speakers said that one of the key things American colleges need to understand is that it is the freshman year, not the senior year, that is missing in a three-year European degree. Most such degrees do not have much general education, but have as much or more instruction in the major. If Europeans are forced to take more education before enrolling in American programs, "you'll just have further microspecializing," not general education, warned Margarita Sianou, deputy executive director of the World Education Services, which compares education credentials across country lines.
The implications of that fact were much discussed. Some Americans said that they worried about the message it would send to their own campuses to admit graduate students without general education. Some Europeans said privately that if American high schools had higher standards, students in the U.S. could have a better general education -- and finish college in three years.
How American universities will respond remains an open question, with people here describing movements in any number of directions. Victoria Rodriguez, vice provost and dean of graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said her institution has a general policy against accepting three-year degrees "and we also admit these students all the time."
Ultimately, she said, "we trust departments to make the right decisions."
At the same time, she said, she has had the "nightmare experience" of admitting international students who looked great on paper only to have them show up without the necessary language skills. Many people spoke about the value of "holistic reviews" to be sure applicants would make a good match, and the additional time such reviews take.
A British professor involved in recruiting in India stunned some of those present by talking about the use of "agents" in India who help identify candidates. While some accrediting-type systems exist to govern the use of such agents, several Americans said that they found this middleman role particularly troubling and that it made them nervous about any perceived relaxing of admissions standards.
Some argued for the current system -- similar to that in use at Texas -- of having strict admissions rules and granting plenty of exceptions. But Mary Braxton, associate director of admissions and records at California State University at Northridge, said that the "do it by exception" practice doesn't really work when you are granting too many exceptions.
The Power to Admit
There was division among those present on whether admissions offices should first make a decision on "admissibility" and then pass the application to graduate departments, or whether the departments should be involved throughout. Some argued for the former system, saying that there was no way individual departments could do the research necessary. Other institutions are evolving away from such a system.
Chris J. Foley, director of international admissions at Indiana University at Bloomington, said that 10 years ago, his office was rejecting applicants from abroad whose degrees didn't seem appropriate without graduate departments "even knowing that the applicants existed."
In the age of e-mail, he questioned whether this was even possible, noting that these days, international graduate applicants are likely to let departments know that they have applied. But philosophically, he also said he thought it made sense to move "from gatekeeper to a consultative role."
Foley and others said that the challenge posed by the Bologna process could be very positive for American universities if it causes them to think more seriously about what they expect a new graduate student to know.
A repeated request throughout the day was for some national guidelines to be developed. Denecke of the Council of Graduate Schools said that he didn't see his group trying to legislate on the issue, but that he hoped to see the development of "best practices." Jerome H. Sullivan, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he also hoped to see "best practices" developed. He also said that the discussion Saturday indicated the need for much more discussion -- and for a similar gathering he hopes to organize to focus specifically on India.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking toward the 2010 Bologna Process target date, and each year has seen more European countries coming into compliance. If American graduate schools don't get ready, friendly competitors are ready to fill the void.
Peter Booth, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Technology, in Sydney, which is seeking more European students, told the Americans at the conference: "I'd be delighted if you stick to requiring four-year degrees."