College Credit for High School Work?

Monty Vierra, Hsu Shan Electric, Taiwan

The series of articles on branch campuses of American universities and colleges in Japan (TLT, February 1996) provided a very balanced picture of the programs offered by those schools. When I was in Japan, I participated in several "Study Abroad" programs which had similar aims. Despite these good aims, some programs fall far short of the quality of American branch campuses.

"Study abroad" programs run by private language schools and senmon-gakko1 actually outnumber American branch campuses in Japan (and Japanese branch campuses in America). Due to limits of space, this paper can only present an overview of this situation.

A senmon-gakko where I worked for a year was one among many in Japan that have articulation agreements with American colleges and universities. An articulation agreement is a kind of contract. In it, Japanese schools agree to give Japanese students American-style education and then to send interested students to the American schools. The Americans, for their part, agree to give qualified Japanese students U.S. college credits for their college-level work in Japan. (This is supposed to work in reverse for American students wishing to study in Japan.)

In itself, this kind of an agreement is perfectly legitimate. As of 1990, dozens of U.S. institutions had "negotiated with partners from Japan" (Chambers & Cummings, 1990, p. 144) along similar lines.

Both parties signing this kind of contract are aware of the requirements. For instance, for students to get credits in the American college, the Japanese school has to (a) hire qualified teachers, (b) offer comparable courses, (c) provide similar facilities, and (d) award grades based on performance and knowledge. (See "Guidelines on Contractual Relationships," in Chambers & Cummings, 1990, pp. 156-60).

The Japanese school where I worked made this kind of guarantee. It told American administrators that its teachers, courses, grades, and facilities were comparable to those in the U.S. Unfortunately, for the most part, this guarantee was false.

For one, grades were determined mainly by attendance, and grades could be changed by the administration. In addition, some teachers did not have qualifications to teach all the subjects they were assigned to teach. Finally, most of the courses described in the senmon-gakko's catalog had nothing to do with what was actually taught in the classroom.

Let me give you an example of this last point. While I was there, the two-semester U.S. history course was taught at the level of the third year of an American junior high school. Yet, colleges in America gave students a full year of credit for the course.

The reason the Japanese school was able to get away with this was that they produced a phony college catalog. They copied course descriptions from various American college catalogs and then presented the result as their own. But they normally only showed the catalog to foreign administrators, not to teachers and students at the school. In short, an "export model" catalog was used to con more than a dozen American college and university administrators2 to agree to give credits to Japanese students, many of whom had done substandard work.

The lure of such an arrangement is not hard to understand. American colleges without the funds or real interest in investing in a branch campus in Japan can really reap the same rewards as more industrious institutions without doing more than taking a pleasant trip to Japan and signing a piece of paper.

If the case I've described here were the only one of its kind, we might not consider it all that serious. However, I also found similar schemes being hatched, one by a private conversation school and the other by a little juku. I suspect that many other schools on both sides of the Pacific have equally questionable arrangements. When administrators of legitimate programs worry about declining enrollments, they only have to look at their less scrupulous peers to find one of the causes of their problem.


  • Chambers, G. S., & Cummings, W. K. (1990). Profiting from education: Japan-United States international education ventures in the 1980s. New York: Institute of International Education.


1Senmon-gakko translates roughly into English as specialty school or vocational School. Most are equivalent to trade and technical schools (in the United States).

2 It's only fair to say that most of the American administrators who signed agreements with this school did little or nothing to ensure that American standards were met. Most acted on blind faith.