Carnegie, the Founder of the Credit-Hour, Seeks Its Makeover

December 05, 2012

The credit hour has reigned supreme for more than a century as higher education's prevailing unit of measure. Now its creator is asking whether it deserves to remain on its throne.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced on Tuesday that it is rethinking the value of the Carnegie Unit.

Instituted by the foundation in 1906, the unit is traditionally defined as one hour of faculty-student contact per week and two hours of outside work over a 15-week semester. Though it was initially invented chiefly to determine faculty members' eligibility to receive a pension, the credit hour has assumed an importance it was never meant to have. It has come to undergird much of the academic enterprise, including student and faculty workloads, schedules, financial aid, and degree requirements.

"That happened by default," said Elena Silva, a senior associate for research and policy at Carnegie, who noted that a time-based measurement has endured as the metric largely because its meaning can be universally understood. "We're at a point now where we could do better."

A likely alternative is to base a standardized unit on some measure of competency instead of time spent in class, as has been popularized by such institutions as Western Governors University. But Ms. Silva emphasized that no single, competency-based metric is likely to replace time as the standard unit of measure. "To come up with a universal metric for competency is a challenge I don't know if we can meet," she said.

To determine what form a new unit might take, Carnegie plans to meet with faculty, deans, and administrators. It will release a report with its findings in January 2014, Ms. Silva said, and the work will be supported by a $460,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Critics of the credit hour have been documenting its flaws for years. Recently, policy makers have proposed uniform definitions of the term, which has sparked resistance from many in academe.

Other forces drove Carnegie's decision to reconsider the credit hour, said Ms. Silva, including technology, which allows students to learn at their own pace; improved measurement methods; and new insights into how students learn. The change in the credit hour is also likely to affect—and further connect—learning on the elementary and secondary levels with what happens in postsecondary education, she said.

The looming change in the credit hour is also part of a larger rethinking of curricular divisions of breadth and depth, said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The credit hour and breadth-and-depth structures were put in place a century ago to bring some measure of commonality to higher education. And both, she said in an e-mail, "are creaky and decidedly out of date."

'Massive Overhaul'

Observers representing a wide range of opinions on the credit hour agreed that Carnegie's announcement marked a watershed.

"If the founder is saying, 'There's something wrong with the unit itself,' it adds a lot of weight and gravitas to the question: What is it that we're actually measuring?" said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a think tank. She is also the author of "Cracking the Credit Hour," a report that argues that the unit is at the root of much of what plagues higher education.

Pamela Tate, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a group that advocates for the use of measures that award credit based on prior learning, hailed Carnegie's announcement, calling it "long overdue."

"This move to competence and away from the credit hour holds tremendous potential for the adult learner because they bring so much life and work experience to the table when they return to college," she said in an e-mail. "We believe strongly that learners should be assessed based on what they know and can do, not just time spent in a classroom."

The potential impact on colleges of a change from the credit hour could be considerable, said many observers. "It could cause a massive overhaul in many respects," said Ms. Silva. For this reason, she said, some institutions may choose to make changes incrementally.

The State University of New York's Empire State College has been awarding competency-based credit since the 1970s. Robert J. Clougherty, acting vice provost for the Office of Research, Innovation, and Open Education, said it was gratifying that the college's philosophy was now being validated. But he does not want his institution's model to become the norm, either. "Each institution should meet its own learners on their own ground," he said. "In terms of the model we have, it's unique to us. The danger is sameness."

And yet, said Ms. Silva, some standardization may be necessary. Without it, a new unit could be easily watered down. "To earn a credential or a badge isn't going to mean anything if everyone measures it differently," she said.

Such talk worries Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. "I'd be very concerned if we try to nationalize or standardize expectations of what counts as competency," she said. "The credit hour is a fundamental academic decision. Faculty should decide what's attached to coursework."

Testing may play a significant role, said Ms. Laitinen of the New America Foundation, and it need not be a bad thing. Many colleges embrace Advanced Placement examinations as universal markers of quality, she said. Lawyers and doctors also have rigorous qualifying exams that are essentially competency-based assessments.

Ms. Schneider, of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, urged caution as academe moves forward. "This is not the right time to jump off the old credit-hour boat and assume that new competency-based assessments are primed and ready to sail," she said. "And we should definitely not kid ourselves that there are strong standardized tests already available that can do the job for us."