Published on 2012/09/07

The Time of the Credit-Hour is Drawing to a Close

The credit-hour, which links the awarding of academic credit to hours of contact between professors and students, has led to many of higher education’s problems according to a recent report released by the New America Foundation.

“There is pretty compelling evidence that what we have right now isn’t working,” Amy Laitinen, report author and deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, told Inside Higher Ed’s Paul Fain.

The foundation, which tracked the history of the credit-hour, was never intended to become the standard measurement for student learning. Apparently the standard’s founder, Andrew Carnegie, introduced them as a way of securing a free pension plan for underpaid professors to allow them to retire at a reasonable age. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching even warned about the inadequacy of the standard shortly after it was adopted, in 1906.

The industry’s reliance on the credit-hour as a standard of tracking academic success has led to a number of major concerns. The biggest is that many colleges and universities will reject transfer credits in part, according to the report, because they don’t trust other institution’s standards as to what constitutes a credit hour.

Moreover, the credit hour can barricade industrial innovations. As learning becomes increasingly student-driven, the seat-time does not serve as a strong standard to assess how much is being learned and taught. Further still, the credit-hour is completely out of synch with the growing demand for self-paced competency-based education and prior-learning assessments.

Ultimately, according to the report, the standard is unreliable because credit-hours do not measure learning. While grades are supposed to hold that role, grade inflation and lack of uniformity leads to concerns on that front. And even if grades worked, Laitinen said the credit hour does not allow students to learn at different speeds. This places credit hours at the center of three of higher education’s most pressing concerns; cost, time and academic quality.

Unfortunately, given the convenience and the wide acceptance of the credit hour, Laitinen said it’s unlikely that the standard will be abolished. Furthermore, if any reforms to the standard do occur, she wrote in the report, it might open the floodgates to federal aid without standards to measure learning; encouraging the proliferation of diploma mills exchanging credits for cash.

“Abusive interpretation of the credit hour could lead to fraud on a huge scale. But the credit hour is also archaic, a nonsensical basis for regulating online programs in which the whole notion of time in the classroom has no meaning,” she wrote.. “Define the credit hour too tightly, and innovation would be stifled. Define it too loosely, and taxpayers would get taken for a ride.”

According to Laitenen, it will take a great deal of collaboration between the federal government, accrediting agencies and higher education institutions to come to a set of policy fixes to repair the credit hour.

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