Diary of an International Credential Evaluator

June 12, 2020
  • International
  • International Admissions
  • International Admissions and Credential Evaluation
  • International Education

by LesLee Clauson Eicher, AACRAO International staff

Friday, June 12, 2020

Dear Diary,

Well, it’s the end of a long day. I started at 7 A.M. I really wanted to get an early start and take care of this one file… a file that I kept avoiding, and that I kept moving to the bottom of the queue. 

Although I kept dragging my feet, I knew I could do it if I just tried! It wasn’t a country I was familiar with, but with only four of us on our small team of credential evaluators, we all need to be generalists and be able to do any country that crosses our desk. I had avoided it for long enough, and ultimately I pledged to myself that I’d just work my way through it, one step at a time. That would allow me go into the weekend feeling good about what I had accomplished. 

I started my day by getting coffee, g-chatting with one of my co-workers, reorganizing the files in my inbox, making my breakfast, answering emails, feeding the cat, scanning today’s edition of University World News, and watering all of the plants in my office. 

None of which, I might add, got me any further along toward my goal.

Once I acknowledged that I was losing focus, I realized I needed to get back to the basics – the principles of good practice that we always strive to follow in our work. And this is how I did it…

Step 1: Organize the file.

So here’s the application with the educational chronology. I read this over carefully, since it has all the information I needed to piece the puzzle together: the applicant’s date of birth; their country of birth, country of residence, and country of study; the institutions they attended from secondary school through the present, along with dates of study and the names of the credentials they earned in the native language. Check, check, check. 

Then I took a look to see if the documents are all there. We make it a practice to request documentation of all study from every applicant. Leaving out credentials can make for an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate picture. Requiring all documents is also a step toward preventing fraud: it might be easy to manufacture or procure ONE fake document, but a whole suite of documents? Not so much. 

Luckily, everything required was all there: high school records, including certificates for external secondary school leaving examinations, as well as an official transcript and diploma for the undergraduate degree. I placed them in chronological order and got to work. 

Wow, going through those initial steps had already made me feel more confident!

Step 2: Examine the documents.

Next up, I always give the full set of academic documents a careful read before beginning the detailed evaluation work. Some things I always look for:

  • Is the applicant’s name on the documents? Does this name match the name the applicant put on their application form?

  • Do the dates on the documents match up with the dates the applicant indicated?

  • If the student has graduated, is there confirmation of this on the records? Is a graduation date listed, and if not, did they include a diploma, certificate, or other proof of graduation?

  • What about the overall look of the documents? Do they look like documents should look from this institution, for this program of study, from this era? Are they originals, photocopies, scans, or even digitally-transmitted? In our office we keep extensive samples of documents on file just for this purpose – so that we can compare academic documents of recent applicants to past applicants. This is another fraud-detection measure. 

So far, so good. I used my eyes, and used the sample document library that we collected over time. With those tools, I was able to see that my applicant’s documents looked typical for what they studied, and for when they were issued.

Step 3: Determine the recognition status of the institution/s attended.

One of the most fundamental issues we deal with in international credential evaluation is institutional recognition status. We want to be sure the institutions attended are “legit.” How to do this? When I started in this profession, we used the “big books” – looking up universities in those 12-lb behemoths like the International Handbook of Universities. (Remember that one?) 

This is the step that always makes me a little nervous, though. These days we mainly use the internet for our research into institutional recognition status, and it can be a little tricky. There is so much information on the internet, and not all of it is useful, accurate, or appropriate. 

Because I wasn’t all that familiar with this particular country, I momentarily drew a blank as to where to start my search for information.

And then my training kicked in like muscle memory, and reminded me that “it’s all about primary resources!” Primary resources are the ones that come directly from the authority: the Ministry of Education or other government body, the university, or the documents or publications issued by these bodies. 

So in my case, I started by looking for the Ministry of Education in the country where my applicant studied. Some of the search terms I always begin with are:

  • Ministry of Education

  • Ministry of Higher Education

  • Higher education in…

And bingo, I found it: I found the correct Ministry in the country I was researching. I was really in my stride, doing the research like a boss! 

How did I do it? I scanned the home page, and luckily the page had a clearly-designated drop down menu for Universities. Click…drop…and voila! A list of recognized institutions in that country revealed itself. I admit I felt pretty smug. I had used a primary source – the Ministry of Education – to confirm that the institution my applicant attended is approved in the country in which it operates.

Step 4: Confirm the program of study

Aha, now I had finally reached a point in the evaluation process where I felt confident! A quick Google search brought me to the the website of the applicant’s institution of study. Click through to the faculty, then the department, then poke around a little more for the program of study. I found it! I confirmed that the degree program does, indeed exist, and my work on this graduate admissions file was nearly done.

Step 5: Double-check the way in which my institution received the documents.

At one time, seemingly ages ago, my colleagues and I would have reviewed the mailing envelopes and ascertained that the academic documents were sent directly to us by the issuing institution. Easy, right? But things are in the middle of great change right now. It’s not only about paper documents any more. We have a variety of methods of transmission of transcripts: from paper… to secure PDFs… to EDX… to Blockchain. Our industry seems to always be changing.

The pandemic has added another layer of complexity to our processes. Whereas at one time we would never have accepted documents by email, these days -- because we know that many administrators around the world are working from home, just like we are -- we consider doing so. It’s a practical way that we’ve developed to adapt to a changed world dominated by COVID-19. This is the process we’ve devised and that we adhere to each time: 

1. Request that the student have official documents directly to us from the issuing institution.

2. If the applicant says their university is closed and thus they cannot have official documents sent directly, we

3. Require proof of closure in the form of a URL or an internet screen-capture. At that point, we:

4. Let the student know that we will accept credentials by email from their university, but that we reserve the right to make the decision about whether those emailed documents are acceptable for purposes of an evaluation. 

5. If we deem them acceptable, we include language in the evaluation report indicating that the report is provisional until such time as the university re-opens and can send official docs via postal mail, or by whatever channels constitute “official” from their institution (one example being secure digital documents). 

6. If the university is closed and has no employees working from home, and can therefore issue nothing by email either, we let the student know that the student can email or send us copies of the documents that they have in their possession. 

7. If we deem those documents acceptable for evaluation, we go forward with the evaluation, including “provisional” language.

8. If we deem those documents unacceptable for evaluation, we place the file on hold until the applicant’s university opens.

Finally having reached my goal, I sat back and observed my work. I did it! Id followed all of the steps in our Best Practices protocols. I am proud to say I made it through this file that I’d been avoiding. 

I felt great about the work I did, and that in turn allowed me to look forward to the weekend with a clean conscience. I worked my way through a “tough” file, provided excellent service to the applicant, and followed best practices in our field of international credential evaluation. 

And now I shut down my computer, tidy my desk, and give my cat an absent-minded pat on the head. While doing so I reflect on the principles that guide us in our work:

Best practice. 

Due diligence.

Know what is going on.

Know what is possible.

Decide what is acceptable.

Be flexible.

TGIF! It’s going to be a great weekend.