The Credit Hour Is Here to Stay, at Least for Now

January 29, 2015

The Carnegie Unit has been around for more than a century, and unless someone can come up with a better way of tracking college credit, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. It presents challenges, but it has value because it sets minimum instructional standards.

That’s the conclusion of a report being released on Thursday by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The report, "The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape," examines the role of the Carnegie Unit, more commonly called the credit hour, in an ever-evolving world of education.

The authors of the report looked into the Carnegie Unit and its relationship to various elements of education reform, specifically transparency and flexibility in regard to the design and delivery of education, both in elementary and secondary schools and in postsecondary education.

Critics of the Carnegie Unit have argued that it is a poor indication of how much students have learned, given that it emphasizes how much time people spend in the classroom rather than how much knowledge they have gained.

In its report Carnegie acknowledges the difficulties that the credit hour can present to the allocation of financial aid, the development of curricula with alternative pacing, and innovations that make education more flexible and learning outcomes more transparent.

One of the report’s authors, Elena Silva, said that those are "perceived barriers." But the report concludes that, despite its flaws, the Carnegie Unit remains the best option for a common language in education.

Here are some key factors explaining why education still needs the credit hour.

Faculty. The Carnegie Unit has been given more meaning than it was first intended to have.

"It was never intended to be a measure of the quality of learning," said Ms. Silva.

It was instituted by the foundation in 1906 primarily to determine a faculty member’s eligibility for a pension. It measures faculty time spent both in the classroom, teaching students, and outside the classroom, preparing for class.

A faculty workload, as measured by the Carnegie Unit, is reduced to contact hours. That measurement, in turn, is translated into credit hours. And those help set a college’s budget, said Jane V. Wellman, author of How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education. In faculty contracts, compensation is often connected to time and the number of students taught, she said.

Faculty members are at the core of the Carnegie Unit, said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at New America, formerly the New America Foundation, and author of "Cracking the Credit Hour." If it were based on students, it would be based on learning rather than time. But that’s not what it was meant to be.

Logistics. The credit hour is an organizing force in higher education.

It has a connection to faculty workloads, college budgets, content-management software, scheduling, and how credits are awarded when a student transfers, among other things.

Many practical and logistical problems would have to be solved before the credit hour could be eliminated.

When the authors of the report spoke with registrars and bursars, Ms. Silva said, they struggled to imagine a world without a common metric like the one the Carnegie Unit provides.

"You’d have to come up with something else that would walk, talk, and smell like a credit hour," Ms. Wellman said.

Federal financial aid. The Carnegie Unit does not generally impose significant barriers to innovation, Ms. Silva said. But she acknowledged one exception: federal student aid. Federal financial-aid regulations are closely tied to the credit hour.

When you measure time, you at least know what you’re paying for, Ms. Laitinen said. It’s difficult to pay for learning rather than time spent learning because what it is, what it should be, and how it can be measured haven’t been agreed upon.

But financial-aid rules don’t have to prevent experimentation with using and counting credit hours differently.

One institution that has been able to work around the credit hour is Western Governors University, which operates on a competency-based model. Students there work through courses at their own pace and advance once they have proved mastery of the course content.

Progress is measured in competency units, which are tracked like credit hours. Students can earn those credits in two or three weeks rather than over the course of a semester. To be eligible for federal financial aid, students at Western Governors must complete a minimum number of competency units per term, a six-month period, said Joan Mitchell, the university’s vice president for public relations.

"The real point of it," she said, "is we measure learning, not time."

Lack of alternatives. Perhaps the most compelling argument for the Carnegie Unit is that no one has come up with a better system. "The crux of the issue is measuring time is easy, measuring learning is hard," Ms. Laitinen said.

Colleges need to create a culture centered on student learning, but that is not happening systematically, she said.

"Until we have some agreement upon what the unit is—the learning unit is—we don’t have much of a choice other than to rest on this time-based notion," she said.

Ms. Laitinen said she sees progress in programs like the Department of Education’s experimental sites, an initiative that waives certain requirements to allow for experimentation in areas such as the awarding of credit, and the Competency-Based Education Network, with which she is involved.

Institutions that are innovating need to do a better job of sharing what they’ve learned, she said, so higher education can move forward. "Why should everybody have to redesign the wheel?" Ms. Laitinen asked. "Let’s learn from each other."

That is something the Carnegie Foundation is calling for, too. Though the report doesn’t really issue a call to action, Ms. Laitinen said, she hopes that people will read it as one.