Ivan F. Pacheco, Research Fellow at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education
In countries across Latin America, headlines about intraregional degree recognition failures are common. A sampling of headlines from Costa Rica, Brazil, and Bolivia makes the point:
- “Foreign students leave Bolivia for Paraguay, complianing about the delay to take the grade exam and obstacles to process and approve their qualifications.”3
It may come as a surprise to many U.S.-based higher education institutions that Latin American students who graduate from universities and colleges in the United States face equally steep recognition challenges. Too often, these students return home only to find their hard-earned degrees are unusable back home.
Especially in the context of the federally supported 100,000 Strong in the Americas Funds, U.S. colleges and universities hoping to recruit and enroll students from the region need to understand the systemic constraints on growth, the impact on students, and ways to help students navigate sometimes confusing recognition requirements.
The European Commission and UNESCO established the European Network of Information Centers (ENIC) to implement the Lisbon Recognition Convention to develop policy and practice for the recognition of qualifications. The European Commission also created National Academic Recognition Information Centers (NARIC) with the purpose of improving recognition of academic diplomas and periods of study in the Member States of the European Union (EU) countries, the European Economic Area (EEA) countries, and Turkey. Today the two networks share resources, including a website, and they provide relevant information about their member countries, as well as authoritative advice concerning the recognition of academic diplomas. Canada and the United States are part of this network and through their National Information Centers they provide both relevant information and advice. ENIC-NARIC offices, and the organization’s website, are a valuable source of information. Latin American countries, however, are not part of these networks, and while students can certainly access the ENIC-NARIC website, they typically lack access to centralized offices or information centers that can offer comprehensive or organized information about study abroad or degree recognition issues.
86,000 Latin American Students Study in the U.S. – Despite Systemic Limitations on Mobility
In the Latin American context, are one of the most important tools for credential recognition. A significant number of bi- and multi-lateral agreements exist both among Latin American countries, and between them and countries from other continents. Yet intra- and trans-regional student mobility remains low. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, the Latin American and Caribbean region has among the lowest mobility of international higher education students in the world. The region’s outbound mobile ratio for 2013 (defined as the number of students from a given country studying abroad, expressed as a percentage of total tertiary enrollment in that country) was only 0.9, compared to 7.6 for Central Asia or 4.0 for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Interestingly, very few Latin American countries have other Latin American countries among their top study destinations. The U.S., however, is a magnet. And while no one Latin American country is, on its own, a major player in sending international students to the United States, the region as a whole represents a significant force. In academic year 2014/2015, for instance, Latin American countries combined sent 86,378 international students to the United States – a tally that outstrips the contributions of both the third and fourth top sending countries, Korea (63,710) and Saudi Arabia (59,945). And the number of Latin American international students is growing year over year, consistent with international trends.
Multiple initiatives – the 100,000 Strong Fund in the U.S., the now-suspended Scientific Mobility Program in Brazil, and Mexico’s Proyecta 100,000 (also on hold), for example – seek to increase this flow. However, a handful of critical challenges pose obstacle to the broad goal of increased mobility out of (and among) Latin American countries. These include:
- Lack of extra-regional degree recognition agreements: The United States has not signed degree recognition agreements with any Latin American country. This is mostly because, in the U.S., education is responsibility of each individual state; hence the Federal Government has no authority to sign this type of agreement. Considering the importance of the U.S. as a receiver of Latin American students, this poses a significant limitation on student mobility. It also imposes sometimes severe limits on naïve students who attend school in the U.S., making a substantial investment of time, money, and effort, only to come home with a degree that, in the eyes of the government, licensing boards, or others, may count for very little.
- Incomplete implementation of the regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications: Comprehensive degree recognition agreements have long been an aspiration for Latin American countries seeking to accelerate development. In 1974, the Latin America and the Caribbean region became the first among six to establish a Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications. Progress rapidly petered out, and in the years since, only 13 out of 33 countries within the region adopted the convention. Two have since denounced it, reducing the number of participants to 11. (Six countries from other regions are also signatories to the convention: Holy See, Montenegro, Netherlands, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia.)
- Inconsistent credential recognition requirements or procedures: Most Latin American countries require that academic degrees be recognized by the government or a university. In the Latin American context, criteria for degree recognition can vary radically from one entity to another. In the U.S. and Canada, by contrast, credential recognition is usually conducted by specialized non-governmental organizations with standardized criteria.
- Poor knowledge management: Efficient and effective credential recognition depends on knowledge of the educational system in which a student has studied. While individuals who have worked in the field for several years accumulate a wealth of knowledge about different countries’ educational systems, including their degree requirements, knowledge transfer or systematic knowledge management processes are typically lacking. Students who request degree recognition may hit the jackpot with a knowledgeable evaluator. Very often, they do not.
- Lack of knowledge among students: National regulations in most Latin American countries require legal authentication (the Apostile) of academic documents obtained from institutions in other countries. This requirement applies to diplomas and transcripts, which must be verified and stamped in the country where a student completed their studies. International students are often unaware of these regulations and requirements, and fail to obtain authorized documents before returning home. Even students who fund their studies with loans from a government agency often run afoul of these regulations. They assume the program they’re attending has been reviewed and approved by the lending agency; too often, they are incorrect. While Ecuador has devised an alternative procedure to help students navigate this specific situation, students from most countries cannot initiate the degree recognition process without authenticated documents.
- A mismatch in conventions around the skills denoted by degrees awarded at different levels of education in different countries: One particularly knotty transnational issue is a mismatch in the skills and training conferred by degrees with similar names. For instance, in Colombia and Mexico the “bachiller” is a degree awarded to those who complete secondary education. In Chile, the “bachillerato” is just a two-year introductory stage towards the higher education degree. Costa Rica distinguishes between the “bachillerato de secundaria,” which is secondary education degree, and the “bachillerato superior,” which corresponds to a higher education level, and which coexists with the “licenciatura,” a more demanding degree that, among other requirements, includes a thesis. For many Latin American countries, a “licenciatura” is a generic higher education degree, but in Colombia the name is applicable only to more advanced teacher training programs. (A similar advanced degree is called a “profesorado” in Costa Rica.)
A Regional Patchwork of Degree Recognition Agreements & Processes
To address these challenges, some Latin American countries have tried to expedite degree recognition in other ways.
- Colombia and Ecuador, for example, have explicit policies that recognize recent precedents (called similar or analogous cases) as a sort of ‘case law’ that justifies recognition of some degrees from some universities and programs. Colombia also expedites recognition of degrees from institutions or programs accredited by reputable agencies. Ecuador maintains an annually updated list of prestigious higher education institutions in the world. Degrees from listed institutions are recognized automatically. The current list includes almost 250 U.S. and 35 Canadian institutions. In cases where an Ecuadorian student has received a government loan to attend an unrecognized program, the relevant Ecuadorian authority (SENECYT) will accept documentation with the caveat that it will further verify accuracy and validity as it deems necessary.
- In Chile, the Ministry of External Affairs is responsible for the recognition of degrees from countries with which the Chile has degree recognition agreements in place; this process is very quick. But the effort bogs down when agreements aren’t in place, due to bottlenecks at key points. The Universidad de Chile is responsible for the recognition of degrees from all other institutions in all other countries, for instance. The recognition process is laborious, and involves comparing the academic program from which a student graduated with programs offered throughout the country.
- In Costa Rica, five public universities are tasked with evaluating academic degrees obtained abroad. A university is assigned to evaluate equivalencies from a foreign institution, and must compare the contents of the academic program that a student completed with its own academic offers. This comparative approach can be cumbersome and restrictive – for instance, when a degree with no domestic equivalent is awarded by a foreign university or program. Case in point: Liberal Arts degree programs – which are very common in the U.S. – are a recurring challenge when Costa Rican evaluators can’t find a close domestic equivalent.
Recommendations: What Can Institutions, Governments, and Others Do to Ensure Students Don’t Get Hurt?
International academic mobility is more than an issue of private benefit for the students. In today’s global knowledge economy, countries increasingly seek to produce, attract, and retain highly educated people. A country’s ability to evaluate and recognize foreign degrees in a timely and consistent manner is key. In this environment, efforts to improve academic mobility fall to a range of players. These include governments, receiving institutions, and others, who can and should provide international students with information and tools to make the recognition process less painful.
- Student loan agencies, particularly those administered by governments, should warn their students that loan approval does not necessarily mean that the academic program has been reviewed.
- Higher education institutions in the U.S. should provide international students with information about:
- The most common degree recognition requirements (e.g. diploma and transcripts)
- How to obtain key documents before returning home
- The legalization or Apostile of relevant documents
- Finally, they should provide students with links to resources that publish regularly updated information about the applicable degree recognition procedures back home. This can be challenging because for Latin America, there is not an equivalent to the ENIC-NARIC website. However, ministries of education, ministries of foreign affairs, and universities can be a good starting point.
All that said: the onus for obtaining recognizable credentials falls, in the end, on students who invest so heavily in studying abroad. They need to do their homework, and research the requirements for degree recognition in their country of origin (or wherever they want to use their credentials). Failure to do so may result in an inability to perform in the field in which they trained. The hit to future earnings and ability to pay student loans; the potential for a long-term a sense of frustration and failure in their careers; the short-term frustration of time and money wasted… all are avoidable if students research degree transferability in advance of enrollment, rather than once they have their diplomas in hand.
 (70 Médicos Graduados en Cuba Luchan por convalidar sus títulos: La Nación, Costa Rica, Dec. 4, 2013, http://www.nacion.com/nacional/salud-publica/medicos-graduados-Cuba-convalidar-titulo_0_1382261785.html).
 (Brasil tiene 17 mil médicos graduados en el extranjero que no pueden trabajar (Agencia Brasil, 13-07-2016,)
 (Estudiantes extranjeros dejan Bolivia por Paraguay. Burocracia. Se quejan de la demora para rendir el examen de grado y por las trabas para tramitar y homologar sus títulos profesionales. (Ejú TV., Bolivia Dec 15, 2013,)