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Degree Discrimination?

Degree Discrimination?

India’s three-year undergraduate degrees seem to provide a solid academic foundation, but there’s no consensus among U.S. graduate schools.

By Dr. Anita Nahal

Last fall, the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., hosted a workshop on the Bologna undergraduate degrees in Europe, which in most cases are completed in three-years.

Discussion ensued on whether these degrees will be more acceptable at U.S. graduate schools than India’s three-year degrees.

The 2006 Council of Graduate School’s survey, “International Graduate Admissions, Phase III: Admissions and Enrollment,” touched upon the topic of the Bologna degrees and to what extent institutions in the United States are more open to admitting students from Europe with such degrees than those from other countries. The survey revealed that the acceptance of the Bologna degrees was increasing and wasn’t an issue for 56 percent of institutions. On the other hand, 45 percent of all institutions reported that they would accept three-year degrees from universities outside of Europe; 55 percent reported that they would not.

Two reasons are most often cited for the non-acceptability of the three-year Indian undergraduate degrees for admission to American graduate school. The first is the most obvious — the three-year degree versus this country’s traditional four-year undergraduate degree. The second most common argument is that three-year degrees afford students little opportunity to take courses in the liberal arts and are more focused on the students’ respective disciplines.

I’m going to concentrate on two modes of assessment that U.S. institutions can consider while reviewing applications from recognized and nationally accredited institutions in India.

First, I think it’s important to ask what the goal of graduate education in the United States is. Is the ultimate goal to obtain a doctorate and pursue research and teaching? To me, graduate school is an opportunity to major and specialize in a particular discipline, in which case how many courses one takes at the undergraduate level in general/liberal education is moot. I believe, therefore, that India’s three-year undergraduate degrees, particularly the honors degrees, should be more sought after in the United States because they provide the students with a solid foundation in a discipline that they ultimately plan to pursue at the graduate level.

Most Indian universities, and I’m not including the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, which offer four-year degrees, offer two types of bachelor’s degrees — the pass and the honors. With the pass degree, students do not major in a discipline, but instead each year take courses that are weighted equally. With the honors degree, students choose a discipline in which to specialize, and over the next three years take the relevant courses. Besides discipline-specific courses, in the first two years students also take subsidiary courses — similar to minor courses in the United States.

When one is accepted into a graduate program, the ultimate goal is obtaining a degree. So wouldn’t the students with honors degrees from India be a good investment?

For example, if a student is applying to a U.S. graduate school to study chemistry, the student with an undergraduate honors degree in chemistry from India would be a good candidate. This is what I would call the Discipline Specific Advantage that Indian three-year degree-holders have.

International students who seek admission to U.S. graduate schools take the same Graduate Record Examination that American students take. The GRE is rigorous, and international students are able to achieve competitive scores on both the general and subject tests. I will call this the GRE Competitive Score Advantage that Indian three-year degree holders have.

The CGS survey indicated that 29 percent of U.S. institutions in 2006
(up 7 percent from 2005) are focusing on the “determination of individual’s competency to succeed” as a factor for admission when evaluating the Bologna three-year degrees. In line with this, I suggest a multi-dimensional, holistic approach that takes into account GPA, undergraduate subject specialization, GRE, statement of purpose, autobiographical sketch, letters of recommendation and, of course, the TOEFL when admitting all international students with a three-year undergraduate degree.

The emphasis should be less on the number of years spent at the undergraduate level or the number of general/liberal education courses taken and more on the number of students that exhibit a mature and serious grasp of their chosen discipline. Instead of a quantitative match, the search in graduate education needs to be for a qualitative match.

We need to carefully ponder the issue, particularly in light of the three-year European degrees, before we encourage Third World discrimination.

— Dr. Anita Nahal is acting director of international programs at the Howard University Graduate School.

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