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Time To Dump Seat-Time-Based Credit Hour, Says Research Report

What happens to the concept of the "credit hour" in online classes, where students don't sit together in a room for the same amount of time every week? The concept of "seat time"--the number of hours a student typically attends a course each week for about 15 weeks--as the basis of the credit hour is outmoded and holding back innovation in higher education, according to a new report.

"Cracking the Credit Hour" was published by education think tank Education Sector and nonpartisan public policy institute New America Foundation and written by New America Deputy Director for Higher Education, Amy Laitinen, who formerly worked as a senior policy analyst with Education Sector.

The report traces the history of the credit hour back to its birth as a remedy for dealing with faculty pensions. Industrialist and Cornell University trustee Andrew Carnegie created a free pension system for professors, administered by his non-profit foundation. Any college that wanted to participate had to use a "standard unit" for determining faculty workload thresholds , enabling professors to receive the pensions.

"Faculty members who taught 12 credit units, with each unit equal to one hour of faculty-student contact time per week over a 15-week semester, would qualify for full-time pension benefits," Laitinen wrote. "Soon, what became known as the 'credit hour' would become the fundamental building block of college courses and degree programs." As she noted, the credit hour "was never intended to be a measure of or proxy for student learning." However, now most bachelor's degrees require 120 credit hours.

Laitinen cited multiple problems in equating time with learning:

If time in college were related to learning, then students would know more with each passing year, she pointed out. However, according to the results of a 12-hour comprehensive exam designed to test baccalaureate-level knowledge, student knowledge is fairly constant over time.

Credit hours aren't universally transferable. Schools routinely reject credits earned at other colleges and there is no universally accepted "exchange rate" for them.

In online courses, in which students are allowed to proceed at their own pace, the concept of the credit hour doesn't make sense. Laitinen quoted from the Department of Education's inspector general during a congressional hearing: "This issue has become even more significant as on-line education has exploded in recent years, making credit-hour assignment difficult, its comparison to traditional classroom delivery a challenge, and its value increasingly important in order to ensure that students and taxpayers get what they are paying for."

Also, credit hours don't address what the students may already know. 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, the report stated.

In spite of its modest beginnings as a way to reward faculty members for their years of service, the credit hour has become a measure of faculty workload, a way to determine state and federal funding, and a necessity for an institution to prove its eligibility for federal student aid.

Although the federal government has expressed its willingness to move away from the use of the credit hour for seat time and tying it to learning, schools have held off on innovation, Laitinen said, fearing reprisals. "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."

The report offers policy solutions that the federal government could drive and which could be made available immediately:

Innovate within the existing frame and use "non-time-based measures of learning to qualify for federal financial aid." Laitinen reported on the competency-based model in use by Western Governors University. As President Robert Mendenhall explained, "We don't award three credit hours when people spend a certain amount of time learning something; we award three competency units when they master learning, independent of time. If a student can pass 40 competency units in that term, which would be equivalent to 40 credit hours, that's how much they can earn."

Innovate through experimentation. The current Higher Education Act offers the Department of Education "experimental authority" to create what Laitinen called "small, controlled, voluntary virtual [laboratories] of 'experimental sites' on which [to test] particular learning-based financial aid policies to see if they work, how they work, for whom they work, and under what conditions they work." One experiment, she suggested, could involve providing financial aid for schools to assess student learning that occurs outside of a classroom or paying aid to students only after they've mastered learning outcomes.

"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 concluded. "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."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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