Report: Credit-hour model outdated, inefficient


Fourteen percent of students are full-time students living on campus.

Colleges and universities are holding back a competency-based credit hour system in higher education, even as the federal government has signaled support for the nontraditional credit-earning model, according to a report that supports the growing opposition to the credit hour status quo.

The New America Foundation’s “Cracking The Credit Hour” is the latest critique of the long-held belief that college credit should be judged solely on hours spent in a classroom, whether it’s in person or online.

Penned by the foundation’s director of higher education, Amy Laitinen, the foundation’s report points out that traditional universities have stuck with the seat-time credit hour model despite the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of credit hours, which was based on 1,200 comments from educators and includes three ways to measure learning outcomes.

The vague “evidence of student achievement” is among the federal government’s approved measurements – a clear nod to competency-based college programs, Laitinen wrote.

Colleges’ hesitancy to shift toward competency-based learning is rooted in fear of losing financial aid eligibility, according to the report.

“It’s a catch-22: Without regulatory certainty, colleges will be reluctant to have their programs evaluated on a basis other than time,” Laitinen wrote. “But until more colleges build programs around verifiable student learning outcomes, it will be difficult for regulators to fully move away from time.”

Campus decision makers, despite the government’s encouragement of nontraditional credit hour systems, believe that to maintain access to federal financial aid dollars, schools should “do what they have always done: use time to determine credits,” she wrote.

The rise of for-profit colleges – the sector grew by 300 percent between 2000-2010 – and the mainstreaming of online education has pushed the competency argument to the forefront over the past decade, Laitinen said.

That massive growth of online learning has also drawn more attention to adult learners who could perhaps benefit the most from a shift away from the seat time model. The vast majority of students don’t take classes in a traditional setting. Only 14 percent of U.S. college students attend full-time classes and live on campus.

Competency-based learning has been the basis of many distance-learning programs for more than 30 years, according to the report. Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College, and Charter Oak State Colleges are a few of the nontraditional credit hour pioneers that have created a model to use across higher education, Laitinen wrote.

Proponents of competency-based course credit programs lauded the University of Wisconsin last summer when campus officials said they would offer classes not tied to the seat time model.

Led by officials at UW-Extension, a continued learning program with offices located across Wisconsin, the UW Flexible Degree will let incoming students demonstrate their knowledge and cut down on the time it takes to earn a degree.

UW Chancellor Ray Cross and Gov. Scott Walker unveiled the Flexible Degree program June 19 as a way to help Wisconsinites boost their education credentials and fill empty jobs that require a two-or-four-year degree.

Students who enroll in UW’s nontraditional degree program could receive financial help from federal and state grants and employer-sponsored grants. Employers involved in the Flexible Degree program will also help recent graduates pay back loans used to fund their education.

About 20 percent of Wisconsin adults have some postsecondary course credit, according to state statistics. These adults, if enrolled in the new competency-based model, would not have to begin their higher education in the most basic classes, saving them money and time.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of education policy studies at UW, wrote in a blog post that a competency-based approach was worth the investment, because “credit for sitting in a seat for a certain amount of time has never felt smart.”

“One way to ensure quality is pushed higher is to encourage the kinds of students who now take in-person courses to try out these online classes, perhaps in summer, and have them … respond with their demands,” Goldrick-Rab wrote.