Care, Caution and the Credit Hour Conversation

January 24, 2013

Judith S. Eaton

The most recent conversation about “credit hour,” a description of time on task required of students in their courses, programs and degrees, is about how this concept might be tied to student learning outcomes. It is also about the federal financing of higher education and sustaining the role that the credit hour has played in this funding. Discussion of student learning outcomes – setting expectations of student learning and judging whether expectations are achieved – has, to date, been led by the academy. Discussion of federal funding and the credit hour has been led by government officials and focuses on what will be financed and how.

Care and caution are essential as we proceed with both the student learning discussion and the federal financing discussion. Why? While the academy is not trying to do the government’s work of figuring out federal financing of the credit hour, the government has displayed considerable interest in doing the academy’s work – determining and judging student learning. This emerging development is undesirable, not only for the academy and government, but also for students and the public.

The Student Learning Outcomes Discussion

The discussion about appropriate outcomes of learning, how to achieve them and how to provide evidence for them, has been underway in the academy for years and is well advanced. It includes credit hour considerations, but is much broader. Lately, the discussion has been driven by the emphasis on accountability and public demands for evidence of student achievement from colleges and universities. It is also related to the impact that online learning, competency-based learning and assessment of prior learning have had on the traditional collegiate classroom-based experience which, for most of its history, has defined higher education and thus defined the credit hour.

An outcomes-based approach to the credit hour can be flexible. It can be implemented within traditional time parameters leading to a degree, such as semesters or quarters. Or, it can be done independently of time: Once a student has provided evidence of learning, progress or completion can be formally noted through a credential of some sort. This last helps to explain not only the recent renewed emphasis on competency-based education and assessment of prior learning, but also the emerging interest in educational practices such as private companies offering online coursework at very low prices (StraighterLine) and massive open online courses (Coursera, Udacity).

The Federal Funding Discussion

The time-based credit hour has been used by the federal government to determine how much and for what period of time federal aid such as the Pell Grant, the largest aid program, is available to students. The federal government is spending historically large sums of money on Pell and other programs, some $175 billion each year. The assumption has been that financing adequate time expended to earn credits is a good use of federal funds and financing too little time expended is a misuse of federal dollars.

While the credit hour concept is well embedded in federal law and regulation, government officials are now persuaded that there is insufficient return on investment using the time-based credit hour. The value proposition put forward is that learning outcomes may be a more effective indicator of whether federal money is spent appropriately.

Care and Caution

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a regulation that provided a federal definition of “credit hour,” accompanied by requiring nongovernmental accrediting organizations to enforce and monitor its use. The federal definition is complex and a work in progress, but allows for either a time-based or outcomes-based approach to the credit hour. Given that definition of credit hour has been the province of the academy for more than 100 years, why, for the first time, is the government defining this concept, superseding the work of the academy?

In 2012, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, advising the Secretary of Education on the recognition of accrediting organizations, released a report examining the effectiveness of accreditation. The report does not focus on the credit hour, but does address student learning outcomes. While not going so far as calling for common outcome measures, the main report does recommend establishing common definitions of outcomes across institutions. The alternative report accompanying the main document calls for institutions to provide common information on some student outcomes. Although both recommendations do not establish and standardize student outcomes, it is a short step from common definitions and common information to national standardization.

Both of these efforts are indications that the government discussion of financing the credit hour is expanding to become a discussion of determining and judging student learning outcomes as well. In some instances, the government taking on this role is assumed. Amy Laitinen’s September 2012 report, Cracking the Credit Hour, offers valuable suggestions about further experimentation with outcomes-based approaches to the credit hour. However, although the report does not directly address financing of the credit hour (the province of government), it does recommend that the federal government provide the leadership for this experimentation (the province of the academy).

We need government officials who understand the importance of turning to the academy for guidance about any transition of the credit hour from time-based to outcomes-based, whether whole or partial. Only after these learning outcome determinations have been made by the academic community is government in a position to decide whether and how funds will be provided. Federal regulations that place authority for student learning outcomes in the hands of government officials and not academics are undesirable and, frankly, likely to be less than effective.

If the government now defines the credit hour, decides the data that are to be used for student learning outcomes and leads experiments in alternative approaches for using an outcomes-based approach to the credit hour, what is left for the academy to do?