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Excerpt from Paul Fain's article.
A philanthropist, one of America’s wealthiest men, was worried about faculty pensions. The solution he successfully pushed, with the largesse of his foundation, led to the creation of the credit hour, which has become higher education’s de facto standard unit of measuring academic work.
Andrew Carnegie never intended for the time-based credit hour to be used to measure student learning, according to a new report from the New America Foundation and Education Sector, which tracks the standard’s history. But it has become a measure and a proxy for what students are supposedly learning.
An over-reliance on the credit hour, which links the awarding of academic credit to hours of contact between professors and students, has led to many of higher education’s problems, according to the report.
“There is pretty compelling evidence that what we have right now isn’t working,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and the report’s author.
One obvious concern is that colleges often reject transfer credits, wasting students’ money and time, in part because they don’t trust what constitutes a credit hour at another institution, according to the report.
The credit hour can also stymie innovation. For example, it is difficult to apply the "seat-time" standard to online classes, which are typically less tied to class time but are an important and rapidly growing element of higher education, the report says. Competency-based education, in which students learn at their own pace, is also a bad fit with the credit hour. So, too, is prior-learning assessment, where students can earn credit for learning outside of college, like training on the job or in the military.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching warned about the inadequacy of the credit hour back in 1906, shortly after the standard was established.
After all, Carnegie’s original motivation had nothing to do with college-level learning, according to the report. He wanted to create a free pension plan for underpaid professors, so they could retire at a reasonable age. In order to opt in, the foundation required colleges to sign on to a time-based standard to address another issue: college admissions requirements. More high school graduates were applying to colleges, and the new “Carnegie Unit” was an easy way to measure how much time high school students spent in each subject.
Colleges followed suit by converting their own course offerings into time-based units, and ignored the foundation’s warnings about the credit hour’s utility. The result is a standard of one credit hour for each hour of faculty-student contact time per week over a 15-week semester, with most bachelor degrees weighing in at 120 credits.
That standard falls short, according to the report, because the credit hour does not measure learning. Grades are supposed to do that, but plenty of research has identified problems with grade inflation. And even if grades did work, Laitinen said the credit hour still wouldn’t allow flexibility for students to learn at different speeds. For example, one student could master college-level calculus in a month in a self-paced class, while another might take a full semester (or longer) to become proficient.
As a result, Laitinen said, the credit hour is at the intersection of three of higher education's thorniest issues: cost, time and academic quality.
The report includes a quote from a 1938 Carnegie Foundation that remains relevant:
“The system of units and credits, which, useful as it was a third of century ago, is not good enough for American education today,” wrote Walter A. Jessup, the foundation’s then president. “Higher education appears to be well on its way to another stage of development in which promotion, at least in college, will be based upon ‘the attainments of minds thoroughly stored and competent...’”