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December 10, 2012 5:30 PM Up From the Credit Hour

By Ed Kilgore

Frequent WaMo contributor Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation has an op-ed in the New York Times today challenging one of the great longstanding totems of U.S. higher education: the credit-hour as the stepping-stone of college or university achievement.

Citing the recent scandal involving cheap-and-easy online courses being taken by athletes to remain eligible, Carey notes the real problem:

A main reason the scandal persists is that our system is built around the strange idea of the “credit hour,” a unit of academic time that does little to measure student learning. The credit hour originated around the turn of the 20th century, when the industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie moved to create a pension system for college professors. (It’s now known as TIAA-CREF.) Pensions were reserved for professors who worked full time, which ended up being defined as a minimum of 12 hours of classroom teaching per week in a standard 15-week semester.
After World War II, higher education began a huge expansion, driven by the G.I. Bill, a changing economy and a booming middle class. It needed a way to count and manage millions of new students. Credit hours were easy to record, and already in place. That’s why today, credit hours determine eligibility for financial aid and graduation (you generally need 120 for a bachelor’s degree).
But colleges were left to judge the quality of credit hours by affixing grades to courses, and the quality of colleges themselves would be judged by — well, there was the rub. Colleges didn’t want to be judged by anyone other than themselves, and remarkably, the government went along with it. Yes, colleges are held accountable by nonprofit accrediting organizations — but those are, in turn, run by other colleges….
The rapid migration of higher education online exacerbates these problems. The notion of recording academic progress by counting the number of hours students spend sitting in a classroom is nonsensical when there is no actual classroom….
But the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do.

That’s a thought that should be familiar to those who read Kevin’s piece in the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly making the case for providing college credit for certified attainment of knowledge and skills outside the classroom setting.

The tyranny of the credit hour doesn’t just discriminate against students whose achievement cannot be properly measured by time sitting in a classroom; it also discriminates against anyone who is competing with or subsidizing those who abuse the current system and get credit for what they do not know.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Chuck Ramsey on December 10, 2012 11:51 PM:

    The story of the Chicago Bears' Julius Peppers, who 'graduated' from the University of North Carolina, while racking up credits from almost-totally-sham courses, is a reminder that nearly every school that is involved in big-time sports is poisoned by the need to keep their players playing, and their athletic departments making money.

  • hatfield on December 11, 2012 11:10 AM:

    Really? We need to transform the entire field of higher education, introduce 'national standards', i.e. force professors to teach to a test, because of the excesses of college athletics? The american university system draws faculty and students from around the world, producing the highest quality system and considerable invisible revenues. So we have to...radically change it because big time college athletics creates massively distorted incentives? Why not simply make "college" football and basketball into minor league sports. That the "credit hour" was created arbitrarily is not an argument that it is bad. That this solution was created consciously does not make it good.

  • cmdicely on December 11, 2012 1:46 PM:

    The notion of recording academic progress by counting the number of hours students spend sitting in a classroom is nonsensical when there is no actual classroom…

    Which might be even marginally relevant, if "credit hours" even notionally measured the time spent sitting in a classroom. They don't. In fact, the ratio of "time spent sitting in a classroom" to "credit hours" varies considerably among classes offered by the same institution. Courses in which most of the actual work is expected to be done during the time spent sitting in a classroom tend to have a high ratio of time-spent-in-class to credit-hours, while courses in which most (or all, as is the case for many thesis, project, or independent/special study types of courses) of the actual work is expected to be done out-of-class, have low (or zero) ratio of time-spent-in-class to credit-hours.

    Credit hours are a measure of the amount of time it is expected will be necessary for the average student to devote to studies in the course, not a measure of time spent in the classroom. Credit-hours measure "how much", grades measure "how well".

    If you can't show the understanding anyone whose ever looked at a college catalog would have of how credit hours are actually used now (not just a nice-but-irrelevant story of where the idea originated), you can't make any kind of convincing argument about what the problems with them are and what they should be replaced with.

    The tyranny of the credit hour doesn't just discriminate against students whose achievement cannot be properly measured by time sitting in a classroom

    It doesn't "just" do that because it doesn't do that at all. Most colleges, in most courses, don't really care all that much how much time you (as an individual student) spend sitting in the classroom even if how much time a student with dutiful attendance would spending sitting in a classroom is one of the factors that go into setting the number of credit-hours assigned to a course. If you can complete all the graded assignments successfully enough to getting a passing grade, you can -- in most classes at many institutions -- be awarded full credit for the class without spending much, if any, time in the classroom.

    it also discriminates against anyone who is competing with or subsidizing those who abuse the current system and get credit for what they do not know.

    Getting credit for what you do not know -- e.g., grade inflation -- to the extent that it is a problem, has nothing to do with the credit hour system it has to do with integrity in grading, which is a completely orthogonal issue to the assignment of credit hours to courses.