The basic unit of measurement for higher education is the credit hour. A full-time student takes about 15 credits, representing time spent in class, a semester. After about eight of those semesters he’s got enough credits to graduate and off he goes.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t go too far in terms of measuring what college is really about. Fixing this will make America better educated and more competitive. So argues Amy Laitinen in a new report she wrote for the New America Foundation. The report is very optimistic about how much credit reform can fix education. Too optimistic. The report maintains that:

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. 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.

While the academic credit hour was (essentially) invented by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century as a way to award pensions to professors, it quickly came to stand for all education. The trouble, Laitinen argues, is that the credit hour doesn’t have much to do with what students are learning.

Students can’t always easily transfer credits from one institution to another. Nontraditional students, the majority of American college students, have to slog along earning credit by credit in community colleges even if they’re already pretty bright and knowledgeable due to work experience, and, perhaps most importantly for Laitinen’s argument:

A 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that the majority of graduating college students lacked the basic skills necessary to summarize opposing newspaper editorial arguments or correctly compare credit-card offers with varying interest rates.

Sure, they earned those 120 hours of college credits, they have bachelor’s degrees, but how much did they really learn?

The author argues that a good solution for this is more innovation, policies to support awarding credit and degrees based on demonstrated knowledge: “If the U.S. is to reclaim its position as the most-educated nation in the world, then federal policy needs to shift from paying for and valuing time to paying for and valuing learning.”

The evidence for this is pretty weak, however.

The United States now ranks 16th, out of 26 countries, in the number of 25-34 year-olds with college degrees. Which country ranks first? It’s Korea. Second is Canada. Third is Japan.

These countries have a complicated series of policies that placed their nations on the top of the list, but what does our relatively low position have to do with the credit hour? Not much.

In fact Korea, the winner in this race, isn’t awarding academic credit based on “knowledge.” Korea measures academic progress by seat time, too. It awards academic degrees based on credit credit hours. So does Canada. So does Japan.

It is technically true that if the United States were to routinely start awarding academic credit for knowledge and “life experience” (as several institutions in the U.S. do quite admirably) we could call ourselves “the most-educated nation in the world,” but we’d be cheating. We’d be measuring education by a very different standard than the one used by other countries.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s be realistic about what’s going on here. We’ve started to realize that the Carnegie Unit doesn’t do a great job measuring how smart students are. This should be no surprise since it wasn’t designed to do that. But the accumulation of more and more knowledge is not all college is supposed to be anyway.

The possession of a bachelor’s degree doesn’t merely indicate the accumulation of a bachelor’s degree worth of smartness; it also indicates that one has spent time living and debating in an academic setting and is prepared to move relatively seamlessly to a professional career.

Given this, there’s no way we’re going to get to a place in America where institutions offer academic credit for life experience and the country’s employers accept this as valid.

Perhaps this is a more structural problem. Maybe we can’t tell if our students are really learning much in college. That’s a pretty serious problem. But is the problem really the credit hour? Does the trouble lie with how we award credit for education or is the problem the education itself?

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