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New Report Examines Problems Created by the Credit Hour in Higher Education, Proposes Policy Solutions

The basic currency of higher education — the credit hour — represents the root of many problems plaguing America's higher education system: the practice of measuring time rather than learning, according to a report co-released today by the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and Education Sector.


The report, Cracking the Credit Hour, traces the history of the credit hour, which was created by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the 19th century. A credit hour typically represents one hour of faculty-student contact time per week over a 15-week semester. Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 credit hours.

Author Amy Laitinen, deputy director for Higher Education at the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, outlines many of the problems that an over-reliance on this time-unit has caused for today’s students. These include:
• Credit hours are not universally transferable. Colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges, a particular problem for the 59 percent of students who attend more than one institution.
• Credit hours are difficult to assign to online courses, which often allow students to proceed through courses at their own pace. The percentage of students taking at least one online course has increased from less than 10 percent to 32 percent between 2002 and 2010. For-profit universities, which often use online classes, are also seeing dramatic increases in their student enrollment.
• Credit hours do not readily translate into assessments of students’ prior learning. Yet students who earn credit through programs that assess and award credit for things they already know are more likely to stay in and complete college than those who don’t.
As the report notes, the credit hour “was never intended to be a measure of, or proxy for student learning.” Over time, however, the credit hour has taken on enormous importance in everything from setting faculty workloads to determining state and federal funding and an institution’s eligibility for federal student aid.

It is the federal student aid program’s reliance on credit hours that has stifled many kinds of innovation, the report argues. Even though the federal government has tried to indicate a willingness to move away from the credit hour, “many in the industry still believe that their safest bet, if they want to keep access to federal financial aid, is to do what they have always done: use time to determine credits.”

Cracking the Credit Hour recommends a number of different policy solutions. All, it argues, are available today. The federal government could:
• Innovate within the existing frame of the credit hour. Although the recent redefinition of the credit hour was designed for other purposes, “it also created opportunities for institutions to use non-time-based measures of learning to qualify for federal financial aid,” Laitinen writes. Specifically, the competency-based model already in use by Western Governors University should “be the norm,” rather than the exception, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
• Innovate through experimentation. The current Higher Education Act offers the Department the opportunity to create what Laitinen calls a “small, controlled, voluntary virtual laboratory of ‘experimental sites’ on which it tests particular learning-based financial aid policies to see if they work, how they work, for whom they work, and under what conditions they work.” She suggests these innovations could include financial aid for credits earned using valid Prior Learning Assessments or outcome-based financial aid.
• Innovate by moving away from a system that is free from the credit hour’s history. Direct assessment of student learning is already permitted under the Higher Education Act.
“If the U.S. is to reclaim its position as the most-educated nation in the world, federal policy needs to shift from paying for and valuing time to paying for and valuing learning,” the report concludes. “In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning.”

Read Cracking the Credit Hour.
Also read our Frequently Asked Questions about Credit Hours and Competencies in Higher Education.
Education Sector is an independent think tank that challenges conventional thinking in education policy. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to achieving measurable impact in education, both through improving existing reform initiatives and by developing new, innovative solutions to our nation’s most pressing education problems.

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