Up From the Credit Hour

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.