Choosing a private evaluation company can be a stressful experience since each company has its own criteria, equivalencies, grading scales, and other methodologies, and they also have different goals than educational institutions in that they provide evaluations for professional licensing, employment, immigration, as well as educational purposes.
With respect to private evaluation companies, an excellent place to start would be with the members of AICE (Association of International Credentials Evaluators) or NACES (National Association of Credential Evaluation Services), two private associations that have membership requirements, codes of ethics, high standards, and publish and present extensively in the field of international education.
Institutions and students using these affiliated credentials evaluation companies can easily determine that the agency they select is not a fly-by-night company with little to no training or experience in the field.
When using a company with which you have no prior experience, one strategy would be to contact the NAFSA Region members where that agency is located to see if the local international education community can offer their opinion.
Please note that, sometimes, private companies choose not to be members of one of the above agencies for their own reasons, not because of any lack of quality or expertise on the part of the agency. As an example, there are several terrific private evaluation firms that may or may not have membership in NACES or AICE but are very active in the international education community by presenting, publishing, and volunteering regularly.
As such, credentials evaluation members of the local international education community may be able to offer an informed opinion about the experience and expertise of a private evaluation company, regardless of its membership in one of those voluntary organizations.
It is my sincere belief that it is in a higher education institution's best interests to do its own evaluations in-house IF the institution is able to financially and administratively support the in-house evaluation process (which requires not just the hiring and initial training of someone but also paying them adequately so they don't leave as soon as they're semi-autonomous, maintaining a sufficient library that includes both contemporary and historical print materials and likely a subscription service, receiving ongoing training via conferences and/or webinars and professional development, and time to do the research necessary for those esoteric credentials that show up in our offices more often than in the evaluation books, etc). The best chance a higher education institution has for protecting the value of its own degrees is to ensure that it is admitting qualified applicants who are held the same standard as their peers who are also applying with the same credentials. Obviously, the best chance of *that* is by doing in-house evaluations and documenting your grading scale conversions, equivalencies, and everything else related to the evaluation so that all staff members will be following the same protocols.
If that's not possible for any number of reasons (cost, training, retention, size of international student population, etc), then the second best choice is to look at evaluations from companies and try to identify those whose philosophies most closely align with your own. (Another option if you have a dedicated person is to do most evaluations in-house and then sub-contract out those evaluations that are outside of your institution's expertise to one or two credential evaluation agencies whose policies align with your own.)
If a particular evaluation agency is noted for completing evaluations based on work experience, for example, and that's not something your institution would accept, that's important to know. If an evaluation company considers all technical post-secondary programs to be non-academic in nature, if your institution offers Applied Arts and Sciences programs on your campus, that's an evaluation agency that might not be a good fit for you. If your institution requires original transcripts sent directly from the institution even for international applicants, then you'd want to know what types of documents the evaluation company accepts.If you have particular institutional policies regarding common gray areas (accounting professional certificates from the UK and/or India, 3-year Bachelor degrees from India, Bologna-compliant degrees, post-secondary technical training, Russian specialist degrees, religiously-affiliated institutions, etc.), then it's good to find out their strategies for handling them before your applicants spend their time and money on an evaluation that might not be suitable for your needs.
I know that many colleges and universities accept evaluations equally from all NACES and AICE members, but then they're making their university decisions on inconsistent starting points. While all of these organizations are professional, respectable, and well informed, they are guided by different philosophies and ultimately reach different conclusions. There are no government-mandated standards regarding equivalencies, grading conversions, acceptable recognition authorities, and a number of topics related to this field in the US, so it is quite likely to get two different evaluations conducted by two different respected and highly informed companies for the same credentials (the type of credential determining how vast the differences). That isn't to say it's all a mess; it's just that, like US admissions offices have different stakeholders, internal policies, and requirements, so do professional evaluation agencies.
Then again, if you're an open admissions institution or moderately selective and just want to know general equivalency information without ever awarding transfer credit or admitting to graduate programs, probably any reputable agency from the above categories is fine. But if you plan to award transfer credits or admit students with international credentials into graduate programs, you would be better off limiting yourself to a small handful of evaluation companies that have an outlook similar to your institution's. If your institution doesn't have stated (internal) policies on handling evaluations, it's even more imperative that you have a small pool of evaluation companies from which your applicants may choose since you would presumably have to rely exclusively on the external evaluation to admit students into your programs. Trust me when I tell you that your applicants will compare notes, and if you admit one person based on evaluation company A and deny someone else based on evaluation company B for the same credential, they WILL let you know! :)
(In the interest of full disclosure, I own and work for Transcript Research, a NACES member, but I cut my teeth in university admissions. The longer I'm in this industry, the more convinced I am that higher education institutions should be asking questions and requesting sample reviews of specific types of credentials that they need handled a certain way before accepting evaluations from a private company. I know that requires more work than just listing an organization's email address, but as I said, I spent my formative years working to ensure that admissions decisions were made as consistently and fairly as possible given how fluid this industry actually is.)
Yours in credentialing,
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