The Uneven Value of Academic Credit

The tight hold American colleges and universities have on academic credit—what it is worth and who awards it—is about to undergo a well overdue stress test.

Two announcements in as many months have the potential to perhaps finally better define the value of credits in higher education.

The first is the announcement by the American Council on Education that it will review a handful of free online courses offered by elite universities through Coursera and may recommend that other colleges accept credit for them.

Ultimately, individual colleges have the final say as to whether to accept credits, even if ACE approves the massive open online courses, or MOOC’s. But the institutions that are part of the Coursera federation of MOOC’s are supposedly the best in the country.

Right now, it is easy for most institutions to deny students who ask to transfer credits from their local community college or a for-profit provider, such as StraighterLine. They just say the quality is not up their standards.

But what happens when students arrive at the registrars’ office with credit-bearing courses from professors at Stanford, Penn, and Princeton? What will the excuse be then to reject the credits—that the courses were free? Such an excuse might finally expose the true reason many colleges refuse to accept transfer credits: They want students to pay them tuition for a class, not another institution.

The bigger question is what happens when, say, an undergraduate at Duke University takes an ACE-approved MOOC through Coursera from a Duke professor and then goes to the Duke registrar in an attempt to transfer the course. Until now, the universities that are part of Coursera have gone to great lengths to distinguish the education that happens on their campuses (which is expensive and exclusive) with the educational experience of these MOOC’s. But once their own students start applying for credit for a MOOC offered by their own professors, these elite institutions will need to figure out exactly how Coursera fits in with their institutional strategy going forward.

Credit is the currency of higher education. Academic work without credit behind it is not worth anything when it comes to earning a credential. The foundation of the credit, of course, is time spent in a chair and not what is actually learned in those seats in any meaningful way.

The reality is that while we often think of credit as currency, what we award now is hardly created equal. For a great example, just read Brad Wolverton’s recent article about Western Oklahoma State College, which awards three credits for super-easy, two-week online classes that are popular with athletes who need to maintain eligibility.

The cartel-like system of controlling credits frustrates new entrants to higher ed—and even established players with new ideas—who want to deliver courses in different ways to reduce costs and improve learning.

The other announcement that is worth paying attention to on the credit front is the approval by Southern New Hampshire University’s accreditor of its competency-based associate degree. The idea behind competency-based education is simple and practical: that degrees should be based on how much students know, not how much time they spend in a classroom. While the model is not new—Western Governors University has been doing it for more than a decade—Southern New Hampshire is about to show whether the idea can work within the walls of a traditional university.

As Southern New Hampshire was building the program, the team putting it together had a goal not to charge more than $2,500 a year. Whenever the team added something that pushed the price over that number, it had to subtract something else. At most universities, the final price of a new degree would not be determined until after the program was designed.

Southern New Hampshire has fashioned partnerships with several local employers that help design the curriculum and provide students to the programs. “We haven’t had anyone say yet, Where are the courses?” says Southern New Hampshire’s president, Paul LeBlanc. “Employers understand competencies. They have told us they can’t find people with basic skills, who can write, communicate, or use a computer. This gives them some reassurance that the students can actually do what they say they can do.”

Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also have ambitious plans for competency-based degrees. Combined with credit-bearing MOOC’s, we’re about to see whether a redefinition of the long-held value of credit can expand educational opportunities, reduce costs, and in some cases, measure learning in new ways.

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