Studies and model tackle problem of transferring study-abroad credits

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Each year, more than 100,000 American students head to France, Germany, Spain or elsewhere in the European Union to study abroad. While they busy themselves mastering a foreign language, learning about a different culture, and making new friends, they also study concepts in their majors -- economics, history and mathematics, for example. But for many, transferring the credits they earn in E.U. schools back to the United States is a complicated and sometimes futile task.

“Credit recognition matters for student mobility between the European Union and the United States,” said Jamie Myers, professor of education at Penn State. “Students who do not have clear information about whether and how credit from abroad will be recognized or those who fear that their qualifications may not be adequately recognized when pursuing their studies abroad are less likely to be mobile or will opt for those countries where these risks are perceived as being lower.”

Myers and three of his graduate students collaborated with a European research team to examine how study-abroad credits are recognized by home institutions. Their two studies, one of which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the other of which was sponsored by the European Commission, recently were published on the European Commission’s website.

To conduct their studies, the researchers analyzed the influence of different credit systems on student mobility between the European Union and the United States and identified best practices for enhancing transparency and recognition of study-abroad credits between the European Union and the United States. The team acquired its data by conducting stakeholder interviews in 14 countries and case studies in 13 countries.

According to Myers, the analyses revealed several problems that make transferring credits between the European Union and the United States tricky. For example, in the United States, students typically receive one credit for each weekly hour they spend in formal instruction, while in the European Union, students receive one credit for every 25 to 30 hours of work they do. This difference in the way credits are assigned can make transferring them difficult.

Another example is the difference in how the European Union and the United States recognize components of the bachelor’s degree. “In the United States, bachelor’s degrees differentiate between general-education courses and major/minor program courses,” said Myers. “The European Union doesn’t make such a distinction. Due to this difference in structure, it can be difficult to identify whether a particular course taken in the European Union should be applied toward a U.S. general-education or major/minor program requirement.”

Although many of the case studies the team examined revealed numerous barriers to the conversion of credits between the European Union and the United States, at least one of the case studies had succeeded in creating a seamless system of converting credits: that of Penn State and its EU partners Jönköping University in Sweden and the University of Chichester in England. This relationship, said Myers, provides a model for student mobility and globalization of study within a professional degree program because it successfully integrates study across the three partners.

“Penn State and its EU partners established the Consortium for Intercultural Reflective Teachers in which teacher-education majors study at all three partners to simultaneously fulfill requirements for dual degrees from Penn State and Jönköping University,” he said. “The success of the consortium provided a foundation for us to examine various factors in study-abroad mobility and credit recognition, and to generate findings that could provide higher-education institutions and policy makers with key strategies to strengthen efforts in study abroad, to internationalize university study in all disciplines.”

According to Myers, the studies’ findings identify the unique characteristics of U.S. and E.U. undergraduate degrees that cause difficulty in the recognition of study-abroad courses and, thereby, reduce or complicate the mobility of students between U.S. and E.U. universities. The findings also highlight best practices of U.S. and E.U. universities that facilitate greater mobility to internationalize undergraduate studies.

To read the studies, go to http://ec.europa.eu/education/index_en.htm.

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Last Updated February 16, 2012