Re-Examining the Sacrosanct Credit Hour
The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com
By JANE V. WELLMAN and THOMAS EHRLICH
"Accountability for performance" is today's mantra in higher education. Whether defined to mean greater attention to student learning, enhanced efficiency and productivity, or public evidence about institutional results, it is being hotly discussed by state higher-education commissions, governing boards, accreditation organizations, and colleges and universities throughout the country.
As a result, now is an ideal time to examine how we measure performance in higher education and whether the metrics we use should be revised. Our top candidate for change is the student credit hour.
The credit hour is the most pervasive performance measure in higher education and the vehicle for translating many complex activities -- student learning, faculty workloads and productivity, enrollments, graduate rates, time to degree, cost per student -- into quantifiable units. Required by government agencies, enforced by accreditors, interpreted by faculty members, and coveted for graduation by students, the credit hour exerts powerful influences on individual and institutional behavior -- sometimes in detrimental ways.
We recently led a group of policy researchers in a comprehensive review of the student credit hour that included surveying 75 institutions in depth and analyzing federal, state, and institutional data. We found that higher education's overreliance on the measure thwarts innovation and perpetuates inequities among various types of institutions and the diverse students they serve. Leaving the credit hour in place without examining its purposes and consequences will distort, or even defeat, efforts to encourage improvement among colleges and universities.
In the early 1900s, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, along with the General Education Board, promoted the adoption of the student credit hour as a common measure for comparing activities and encouraging greater efficiency and competition among institutions. The credit-hour measure made possible the calculation of relative faculty workloads, the cost of instruction per student hour, and ultimately the rate of educational efficiency for individual professors, fields, departments, and colleges.
The curriculum reforms of the early 1900s, which gave rise to the elective system, further spread the use of the credit hour as a way to translate course work into credits toward a degree. The measure gained added muscle when state governments began to use the credit hour to standardize budget formulas in public-university systems and to compare student workloads between institutions by converting enrollments into "full-time equivalencies." Today, the federal government has become the single biggest regulator of the student credit hour as a time-based measure, requiring it as a condition of accreditation for all degree-granting institutions and building it into its enrollment, financial, and other data systems. The measure is now so embedded within higher education that it is almost invisible.
Most four-year colleges, however, do not have policies or even criteria that explain the basis for connecting credit units to course work -- despite evidence that most of them pay almost no attention to class time. When the measure is defined, it is usually as a measure of students'
seat time in the classroom. One hour per week in class for 14 or 15 weeks equals one student credit; 12 hours per week in class equals a full-time load; 120 student credit hours equals a baccalaureate degree. Although the metric purports to gauge faculty effort and student accomplishment, it does not measure learning based on specific goals or results.
For example, in the fall of their freshman year, students usually take three or four courses from three or four different faculty members. One professor demands six hours of work outside class for each credit hour, another requires three hours, another calls for less than an hour, and another expects no work at all outside class. Yet students in all those courses receive the same three or four credit hours for each, as do the faculty members who teach them.
Meanwhile, the systematic reliance on the credit hour curbs faculty creativity and the willingness of students to seek innovative classes. For instance, some faculty members shy away from team teaching and interdisciplinary courses, partly out of fear that they won't get "credit" for their work. And students can be wary of taking service-learning courses because they don't think their work will be adequately reflected in credit hours.
An overdependence on the credit hour also contributes to the atomization of learning caused by ambiguous or nonexistent general-education requirements and the high degree of student mobility across institutions. The B.A. degree is equated with the accumulation of 120 credit hours, whether or not the learning sequences make sense or add up to clearly defined learning results. Institutions leave it to individual departments and schools to justify learning goals through requirements for majors, but since most students change their majors -- and many their institutions -- several times, there's no way to be sure they've met those objectives.
Some colleges have tried to modify the credit hour to measure learning goals and not time-on-task. Ohio State University and other institutions give students different levels of credit for the same course depending on their activities. For example, students may obtain three units for attending lectures and passing exams, but receive more for performing community service or writing papers. California State University-Monterey Bay uses an outcomes-based approach: Students must develop a defined set of abilities -- "university learning requirements" -- to obtain certain credits.
But even when colleges develop alternative ways to measure learning, the external administrative bureaucracy may continue to enforce standards based on a time-linked measure. For instance, institutions that have tried to adapt the credit-hour measure to learning goals have often been bogged down in efforts to accommodate federal regulations required to qualify for student financial aid.
The incentive structures in many state budgets also reward accumulations of credit hours without regard to learning sequences or outcomes. The ambiguous rationale for the credit hour becomes a particular problem when it is built into external accountability measures, like comparative measures of time-to-degree. Since time-to-degree is based on enrolled time, rather than credits earned, institutions that serve many part-time students look "unproductive" when compared with institutions that serve only full-time students. Many state budget systems that use credit hours to measure students' full-time or part-time standing also favor research universities or institutions serving a high proportion of full-time students -- typically those in upper-division and graduate-level courses. Because community colleges have a relatively high number of part-time students, as measured by credit hours, they can receive less financial
support from their states.
Despite the problems surrounding the credit hour, the need for better public accountability in higher education is growing, and dumping the measurement entirely would cause a huge upheaval. Along with accreditation, the credit hour knits together the otherwise disparate parts of our system of higher education and helps students move from one institution to another. In fact, as part of government reform of higher education, some countries abroad are moving away from standard, state-mandated curriculums and introducing the credit hour to give students more mobility among colleges and universities.
Thus, the basic policy question is: How can we still keep some form of academic-credit system as a performance measurement but break some of the bad habits that have grown up around the credit hour?
Based on our research, we recommend relatively modest changes that could cumulatively make a major difference. Most important, the federal government should stop its pretense of regulating time as the basis for academic credits. It should change the language from "student credit hours" to "student credit units," and eliminate the other time-based measures, like academic calendar requirements, that are associated with credit hours. The federal government and institutions could then shift away from measuring time to the degree and instead focus on credits to the degree -- a much better indicator of real activity.
For their part, state agencies should design ways to base budgets on head-count enrollments and sequences of courses or learning outcomes rather than just counting credit hours. The current budget crisis provides opportunities to revisit old formulas.
Accrediting agencies should also revise their policies to emphasize that learning outcomes should be the primary basis for credit determinations. That does not mean that they should entirely abandon time-on-task as an element of the learning process. But the process of revising standards would produce a healthy debate within academe about when and how to use different measures of processes and activities in awarding degrees.
The most important discussions, however, need to occur within institutions, most of which seem to operate on autopilot with respect to the student credit hour. A good place to start might be for each college to conduct an internal review of the ways that it has come to use the measurement -- for high-school courses required for admission, for credits for degrees, for residency requirements for graduation, for faculty-workload comparison -- to test whether the measure can be justified in terms of current institutional priorities.
On most campuses, such an inquiry could lead to small but significant revisions in the ways student credit hours are used -- and the results would strengthen higher education.
Jane V. Wellman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Thomas Ehrlich is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. They are the authors of How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education, published
this month by Jossey-Bass.