The Credit Hour Problem

As the College Guide reported in July, the Department of Education was on the verge of finally defining college credits, which are used to determine federal financial aid, as “measuring the amount of work consisting of one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and at least two hours of student work outside the classroom over a set period of time.” Easier said than done.

Apparently many higher education associations are objecting to the new regulations. In a letter signed by representatives of 72 organizations, the American Council on Education writes that,

With this language, the Department of Education has federalized a basic academic concept and, at the same time, developed a complex, ambiguous and unworkable definition.

The concern is not that accreditors are expected to examine institutional policies with respect to credit hours. They have and will continue to do so. Rather, the issue is that with little evidence of a problem and no evidence that Congress wants the federal government to intervene in this area, the department intends to use accreditors to extend federal authority over academic decision-making on local campuses.

Furthermore, the ACE points out that that definition is sort of crappy. It really just measures how long students sit in classrooms and may well dissuade colleges from engaging in innovative, and potentially more effective, teaching.

While the letter’s points are all valid, ACE fails to establish what really the harm would be (to students, institutions, or taxpayers) if the Department implements its federal definition for credit hours.

Well, except for this part:

This… will impose enormous burdens on institutions as they attempt to interpret and apply the definition to all courses and on accreditors as they attempt to review these interpretations and their application within many diverse institutions. These tasks will require new levels of highly detailed and laborintensive compilation and evaluation. They will divert time and money from productive academic investment to detailed compliance reporting. Moreover, this effort will inevitably draw attention away from broader considerations of academic content and effectiveness.

The ACE and other signatories “request that the Secretary of Education rescind the regulation containing the credit hour definition.” This is unlikely to occur.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer