Faculty, stakeholders weigh the credit hour against competency-based learning.

credit-hour-carnegieWhen discussing the credit hour, one could almost be discussing fossil fuels; at least, that’s the gist of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s recent high-profile report making waves in the higher education community.

As national urgency toward the development of alternative fuels grows, there’s still the problem of how to actually create and produce non-T-Rex-based oils at an affordable price that won’t cause mass public panic and chaos.

The same thought process can be applied to the credit hour.

In the report, the Foundation argues that the credit hour is so ingrained in the fabric of education that, at the moment, getting rid of it would have tragic consequences on course curriculum, teaching methods, faculty pay, student learning, and financial aid.

Why? Because while competency-based education standards are a novel idea with great potential, the implementation strategy for how CBE could work as a total replacement of the credit hour is fairly non-existent.

“The study finds that the Carnegie Unit remains the central organizing feature of the vast American education system, from elementary school to graduate school, and provides students with an important opportunity-to-learn standard,” notes the report. “But at best, the Carnegie Unit is a crude proxy for student learning. The U.S. education system needs more informative measures of student performance. Achieving this goal would require the development of rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability systems—difficult work, especially in the field of higher education, where educational aims are highly varied and faculty autonomy is deeply engrained.”

In other words, let’s see what the scientists come up with at the lab and we’ll let you know when you can start using your solar battery-powered Camry. Until then, time to fill up the tank.

The Report has generated quite the buzz in the education community, with many saying the Foundation didn’t do enough to help find a solution to the problems it identifies with the credit hour.

But is the credit hour really so bad, or can it hold positives for faculty and students? Does the credit hour need to go completely, or can there be coinciding assistive CBE alternatives? Here’s what the community is saying:

On faculty

“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, for the Chronicle. “In faculty contracts, compensation is often connected to time and the number of students taught.”

One of [the credit hour’s] primary goals was to ensure that faculty members were fairly compensated for their time and work. A big challenge at the turn of the 20th century–one that has reemerged in the early 21st century–was that universities provided insufficient pay and economic security for scholars to devote their lives to teaching and intellectual inquiry,” said Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, for Inside Higher Ed. “At a time when more and more faculty members work as adjuncts or lecturers with low salaries and little protection for academic freedom, the question of the economic security of academics is pressing.”

(Next page: On serving students; alternatives)

On serving students

“Measuring learning was left to the discretion of individual teachers and professors,” said Elena Silva, a senior associate at the foundation and co-author of the report, for Campus Technology. “Given the great diversity in goals and activities in the U.S. educational system and the autonomy enjoyed by faculty, particularly in higher education, creating an alternative to the Carnegie Unit poses formidable challenges. While the Carnegie Unit has many limitations, it does provide a minimum guarantee of student access to opportunities to learn.” In other words, the elimination of the credit hour could result in disadvantaged students facing greater risk; the thinking: that “learning takes time,” and an environment in which time is a variable could result in perpetuating their disadvantages, writes Dian Schaffhauser.

“It is not a foregone conclusion that CBE programs will save money for all students, wrote the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in a recent report . “Federal regulations do not allow students attending many of the most innovative programs to receive federal financial aid. For students with financial need, the net price of a CBE program may be higher than that of a traditional program, accounting for financial aid discounts. Also, if a student progresses too slowly through a CBE program, the price of the program may exceed that of a regular program.”

“…assessments of student learning must be designed in ways that are compatible with the purposes for which the university exists. To measure student learning in ways that are abstracted from the lifeworld in which skills take on meaning, are practiced and are developed would erode the moral and intellectual foundations of the university. It would treat skills as ends, not as means to an end” described Reem. “Any move beyond the credit hour, then, must be grounded in the particular, must move beyond general competencies and must take seriously the specific knowledge gained by studying particular things with particular people.”

On alternatives

The time isn’t right to kill the credit hour, in part because competency measures are an inadequate replacement, said Carol Geary Schneider, AACU’s president, to Inside Higher Ed. However, the Report still “didn’t answer what could be added to the credit hour ecology.”

You’d have to come up with something else that would walk, talk, and smell like a credit hour” in order to solve the practical and logistical problems before the credit hour could be eliminated, explained Jane Wellman, author of How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education, to the Chronicle.

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


Add your opinion to the discussion.