Foundations vs. the Credit Hour

Know who's got a lot of time to spend sitting in college classes? Rich people. Know who doesn't? Poor people. Several prominent higher education foundations — Lumina and Carnegie, to name two — have for this reason grown suspicious of the credit hour. Along with the letter grade, how did the number of hours a student spends in class become the defining measure for judging whether or not s/he deserves an academic credential?

The credit hour first became the basic unit of exchange in higher education out of necessity. The Carnegie Foundation, now one of the most vehement critics of the credit hour, first standardized it in the early 20th century. Carnegie did so as a means of deciding how to pay out professors' pensions. The decision had nothing to do with the best interest of students.

Scholars have questioned the legitimacy of the credit hour since at least the 1960s. In 1965, sociologist James Schellenberg wrote that there "are not so many letters delivered, so many tonsils removed, so many dollars worth of insurance extended, or so many parts of a broken down machine repaired" in higher education. For Schellenberg, this begged the question of "whether or not the more important qualities of educational service are very closely correlated with the number of hours a student is processed through classrooms."

More recently, Amy Latinen at the New America Foundation published a widely cited report that attacks the notion of the credit hour. Latinen argues that accreditation systems based on "seat time" privilege the so-called traditional student who lives and studies on campus despite the fact that a diminishing proportion of undergraduates actually do so. Meanwhile, working people "who have acquired college-level learning on the job have no way to get credit for their learning."

Lumina and Gates funded the report.

Lumina also this month gave the University of Wisconsin (UW) $1.2 million to gauge and document the performance of a new program called "Flexible Option." First introduced in November 2012, Flexible Option is an online, "competency-based" curriculum. It permits students to enroll, do course work, and take tests whenever they want.

That way, students don't have to waste years and thousands of dollars slogging through algebra prerequisites if they already know calculus. They just take the calc test and get on with their lives.

Whether you're in a position to publish policy research that dumps on the credit hour like Latinen, or like the folks at UW have academic programs that award credentials based on alternative criteria, Lumina, Gates, and Carnegie all represent potential allies.