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The foundation that created the credit hour in 1906 now wants to rethink it, with a shift that might help competency-based higher education.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on Tuesday announced that it would use a $460,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to study the Carnegie Unit, which forms the basis of a time-based measurement of student learning. The credit hour calls for one credit per hour of faculty instruction and two hours of homework, on a weekly basis, over a 15-week semester.

A virtual gold standard in higher education, the credit hour is deeply ingrained as a measuring stick for academic quality, accreditation and access to federal financial aid.

But it is viewed by many as outdated and inadequate as a measure for student learning. Critics say the focus on “seat time” has stymied progress on promising approaches like online programs that are self-paced and competency-based -- where students earn credits for proving what they know, not for how long they spent on course material.

For example, a recent report from the New America Foundation and Education Sector described the credit hour’s deficiencies and linked it to several of higher education’s problems, such as inefficiency in the transfer of credit between institutions, which can waste students’ time and money.

The report noted that the Carnegie Foundation did not intend for its definition of the credit hour to be used as a yardstick for learning, having originally created the unit to help professors earn pensions. The foundation has long warned about problems arising from an overreliance on the standard, and it said those issues have become more urgent.

“As expectations for schools and students have risen dramatically and technology has revealed the potential of personalized learning, the Carnegie Foundation now believes it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities,” the foundation said in a written statement.

Thomas Toch, a senior managing partner at Carnegie, said the credit hour “seems increasingly antiquated” due to advances in technology and emerging methods of content delivery.

Accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education are working through how to regulate institutions that want to move beyond the credit hour. It’s unclear how much the Carnegie Foundation’s new tack might help them in those efforts, but it probably won’t hurt.

Competency-based education is expanding both among upstart institutions and traditional players. Western Governors University has led the charge. But others with plenty of experience in the space include Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and Charter Oak State College. The University of Wisconsin System and Northern Arizona University are two new arrivals with ambitious programs.

But those institutions currently link their competency-based offerings to the credit hour. And there is hardly a consensus that the standard should be dismantled. Some faculty leaders, for example, have argued that the credit hour provides a “means of identifying accomplishment and progress toward a degree.” When used in concert with others measures, the credit hour plays a vital role, some say.

Any reforms to the credit hour will need to be thoughtful and deliberate, according to Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and author of its recent credit hour report. The reason, she said, is that releasing federal financial aid to institutions without a standard for measuring learning could encourage diploma mills and a flood of unearned credits for cash.

The Carnegie Foundation said it would lead a program of research and analysis to “lay the groundwork for a potential redesign of the Carnegie Unit.” The project will include input from a broad range of sources, according to the foundation. It will culminate in a report that looks at the value of the unit in “today’s educational context and examines the potential consequences of creating a new unit of learning.”

The foundation said it would not take a heavy-handed approach with the research. “We don’t have a clear sense of where we’ll end up,” Toch said.

Southern New Hampshire University’s president, Paul LeBlanc, said the foundation’s announcement is part of a “growing call” to decouple seat time from measures of learning. The Lumina Foundation and many supporters of the national college “completion agenda” are part of that push.

LeBlanc’s institution recently received approval from its regional accreditor for a competency-based program that does not rely on the credit hour, with an approach called “direct assessment.” Southern New Hampshire also applied to the Education Department to try to get the program approved to participate in federal financial aid programs. The university’s application got an initial positive review from the department, LeBlanc said, which is now considering how financial aid would work in the program.

The Education Department has said it supports competency-based education. That message has been mixed at times, however. The department reiterated and clarified the credit hour a couple years ago, as part of a broader set of rules aimed at protecting the integrity of federal financial aid programs, but drew plenty of criticism for instead muddying the water.

Officials at the department have been working on a “Dear Colleague” letter to help shed light on its position on competency-based education and direct assessment. But that letter, which some expected to hit in October, has yet to be released.

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