Serving a higher purpose

Last updated:

The IB Diploma Programme is recognized by more universities than ever before. But schools have a vital role to play as it rises up the global educational agenda

What sort of higher education institution would accept a diploma that nobody had ever sat before? The intrepid group of academics and school leaders who first conceived the IB Diploma Programme in the late 1960s faced just that question. As it turned out, they needn’t have worried.

The Diploma Programmes original rationale was to provide a reliable and consistent qualification for international students returning home to study at university. Recognition by leading institutions was integral to its success. But, emboldened by the patronage of some of the world’s most prestigious international schools, admissions officers were initially curious and soon welcoming. The first cohort of IB graduates went on to MIT, Princeton, Yale and Oxford, among others.

In 1974, Cliff Sjogren, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan, was sufficiently impressed to pen a public endorsement of the programme: A transcript that reveals a student’s enrollment in International Baccalaureate courses serves notice to the admissions officer that the applicant is someone who accepts rather than avoids educational challenges The International Baccalaureate programme is uniquely designed to serve intelligent, serious students.

Almost 40 years on, the Diploma Programme is formally recognized at more than 1,800 institutions worldwide. In many places, it is ubiquitously accepted and handed statistical equivalence with local qualifications. Acceptance rates of IB graduates at Ivy League colleges outstrip their peers. The state of Florida guarantees a diploma-holder a scholarship and university entrance. Governments and institutions across much of Western and Northern Europe and Asia are official supporters.

But recognition is subject to the same social and political forces that are reshaping the structure, funding mix and prevailing philosophy of higher education as a whole. And in certain regions, the IB faces localized problems it can sometimes struggle to overcome: India, with its chronic shortage of university places and booming population, cannot manufacture the political traction to recognize the IB alongside local qualifications; certain countries where the Ministry of Education closely controls admissions may struggle with the resources or the will to engage with the Diploma Programme; and even in the UK, where the IB has high-level academic, government and media approval, traditional higher education structures occasionally work against a programme that values breadth as much as depth.

The good news is that, just as the IB grows organically, recognition is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The IB is pretty well universally understood in the universities we deal with, thanks to the quality of students it has produced over time, says Vicky Tuck, Director-General of the International School of Geneva, Switzerland, and former Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College in the UK. There’s an integrity about the Diploma Programme, and it is very good preparation for higher education. Universities need people who are going to stick at it and are able to adapt to an environment where they might not have that much support.

Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University in Madrid, Spain, agrees. IB graduates are very well prepared for university. They receive an international education, and are open and tolerant.

Such endorsements are every bit as valuable as Sjogrens. But in an ideal world, higher education would be sufficiently meritocratic to render them unnecessary. It should be possible to benchmark all national curricula and independent qualifications to produce an objective assessment of each candidate’s achievements.

Paul Campbell understands better than most how reality intrudes on that aspiration. From his office in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, the Head of Regional Development for IB Americas oversees recognition efforts across the region. His team visits hundreds of schools and colleges each year to undertake a vital dialogue.

The advancement of recognition has become integral to the IB because when statistics are lacking, or open to misinterpretation, it must provide context for admissions officers. And when entrenched political interests come into play, engagement can make all the difference.

Theres a broad interest in IB graduates throughout the world, says Campbell. Institutions instinctively know these students will enrich their academic profile, and life on campus. But in the past there was a fairly myopic view of recognition.

We only thought about where the Diploma Programme would be accepted as a credential for university admission. But today we have broadened our understanding of university recognition of the IB, and we work to promote several other ways in which post-secondary institutions can indicate their support for the IB.

These include receiving credit for work already covered in the Diploma Programme, adequate placement to avoid repeating work, scholarships (including IB-specific ones) and helping make universities recruitment cost-effective.

Campbell and his team speak to any institution that has questions about the Diploma Programme, or where a school believes better engagement could help a student. The ultimate aim is a formal IB recognition policy that sets out some form of equivalence with other qualifications. This can take anything from a couple of months to a couple of years to engineer. The good news, says Campbell, is that the more selective an institution, the more likely it is to have an IB policy as it will have recruited students from abroad for many years.

The IB brand has consistent values, in contrast to many state systems, says Paul Sanders, Global Head of Recognition. The key, he believes, is to identify the decision-makers in each institution this could be admissions staff, but elsewhere evaluation of curricula could make its way as far as the provost’s office.

Michael Bluhm, Associate Director of Domestic Undergraduate Admissions at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has become an IB convert through engagement and seeing its effects in action: IB students tend to perform well academically when measured against peers from other curricula. In particular, they get off to a strong start, and survey data suggests they are more engaged in exchanges, clubs and teams.

But it’s important to have somebody in administration at the university who understands IB and is willing to take it on, who knows the channels to go through and the people who have a role in making decisions. Universities who haven’t done the research can underestimate IB students.

Schools can help, he says. We rely on schools to put as much information as they can about the curriculum on a student’s academic record. It gives us a good steer.

A good explanation of the connections a student has made between subjects, and their potential for inquiry, is often as powerful as a strong academic score.

It would be easy to view the relationship between schools and universities as a Mexican stand-off. In fact, they are subject to the same pressures.

Internationalization has become the main driving force in higher education, says Iñiguez of IE University. Increasingly globalized professions bring threats and opportunities, he points out, while advances in understanding of learning processes are leading faculty to become orchestrators rather than lecturers. Universities haven’t competed for 700 years, says Iñiguez. The theory of multiple intelligences is very recent. Academia is very traditional. It’s very difficult to change things, and we need pioneering institutions.

IEs response has been to emphasize the international being able to take your degree and join a cross-cultural team in a professional organization anywhere in the world, says Iñiguez and to radically alter its admissions processes. It gives extra credit for multilingualism, looks favourably on entrepreneurship and has introduced certain psychometric tests to target emotional intelligence. Its cohort is now more than 60 per cent Diploma Programme students, probably the highest proportion in the world.

Others may be tempted to follow the blueprint, particularly in emerging economies, where the need to engender a creative and internationally aware workforce is pivotal to economic growth. Kapil Sibal, India’s Minister for Human Resource Development, has said: Any nation must ensure that a critical mass of people move into the university system not less than 30-40 per cent. Asia will account for most of the growth by volume of higher education over the next few decades.

Most of the schools feeding this system are likely to be state schools and with 65 per cent of IB Diploma Programme students already educated by the state, that is where the IB will flourish, many believe. The IB Career-related Certificate (IBCC) will take IB values and practices into new types of institution.

This volume creates a logistical challenge, as well as an opportunity, for recognition. It also restates the importance of statistical alignment with other systems.

It can be very hard to engage with the statisticians, says Antony Mayrhofer, Director of International Relations at St Pauls Grammar School, Penrith, Australia. But Australia has found a potential solution. A broadly backed initiative has seen a national conversion rate created between the Diploma Programme and the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) used for college entrance. It means students can check their projected Diploma Programme score against a scale of 0-99.45, giving universities a clear benchmark.

The system isn’t perfect. One state runs its own parallel table, leading to some discrepancies. And as Australian High School Certificates are subject to grade inflation, unlike the Diploma Programme, the conversion rate must be revised each year.

Until such schemes catch on, how can IB World Schools best work with the current system? Geneva’s Tuck says a willingness to pick up the phone to an admissions tutor and spend time explaining things to them is invaluable. She also encourages schools to invite inspiring former students into the school, and partner with local schools to engage universities collectively.

The best thing schools can do is keep in touch with their graduates, advises Campbell. There’s no more powerful advocate for an IB education.

Across the IB, recognition efforts continue to grow in importance and visibility. In the USA, college counsellors are being engaged and empowered to discuss curricula with admissions staff. The forthcoming IB Student Registry will be a powerful tool for schools and universities to share information.

The IB expects the 2,000th formal recognition from a higher education institution by the end of 2012. And with cohorts growing, more doors are opened. Anecdotally, says Mayrhofer, the more people come into contact with Diploma Programme candidates, the more they see a night-and-day difference between them and people who have studied the local curriculum.