The agenda for change before U.S. higher education is already very long. But with its recent reports on three regional accrediting agencies , the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Education has moved the definition of the credit hour closer to the top than I had ever imagined.
If the community procrastinates and the out-of-date Carnegie Unit becomes the default definition applied by the department , accrediting agencies and the institutions and programs they accredit will experience greater upset and confusion than they expect or want.
Based on my experience in higher education, I know that for decades faculties assigned credit hours according to a fairly complex although unwritten matrix. But perhaps I received the wrong introduction to the collegiate credit hour as long ago as 1962.
That year Lewis & Clark College, my alma mater, ran a breathtaking experiment. With several other freshman colleagues, I spent my first collegiate semester in Japan. I took four three-credit courses, two of which were completely independent study and two of which involved about six weeks of face-to-face instruction. I took exams in the latter two and turned in lengthy papers in all except Japanese language.
I could not discern any mathematical formula based on seat time and/or study time that made these each three-credit courses. Nor did it bother me that the actual workload for each three-credit course seemed different. I assumed the faculties of record, as well as the L&C faculty as a whole, must have agreed to the assignment of credit hours. Looking back on that experience, I can also testify that had time on task alone been the measure of learning, I probably deserved four credits each in a couple of those courses.
The “flexibility” of the credit hour continued throughout my collegiate career. In finishing my undergraduate studies, I had a three-credit honor’s thesis course that had no structured time commitments. It prepared me for graduate school where, after finishing a sequence of courses, I registered faithfully each semester for credit-bearing “independent” courses for my doctoral research. I assumed that everyone in the academy understood that the use of credit hours to measure student learning often was not tied to seat time or study time.
My decade as a classroom instructor essentially confirmed that understanding. During it I experienced my share of faculty squabbles over losses of a class day -- and the contact hours it represented -- to such things as post-Thanksgiving Fridays and campus-wide days devoted to the discussions of the issue of the moment. Differences among faculty opinions most often were ironed out in curriculum committees and faculty senates. Sometimes contact hours figured into those debates; sometimes other faculty expectations of student activity counted more heavily. But most faculties seemed to have a basic understanding of how to assign credits.
As I moved from campus to campus in the 1970s, I saw that this understanding apparently carried across institutional boundaries. I moved from institutions with 15-week semesters to others with 10-week semesters. I created courses for the four- to six-week courses in a “4-1-4” or a “4-4-1” academic calendar, and once I taught summer school sessions on a six-week calendar. Calendars shifted, but allocation of credit hours, at least to me, appeared to follow some well-understood “industry standards” related to mastery of course content and only loosely tied to the contact hours of a Carnegie Unit.
The fact is that professional judgment by the faculty long ago supplanted seat and study time in the determination of award of credit hours. Faculties, drawing on education and experience, determine what knowledge and skills a student should master; faculties determine how to break into courses and modules the learning processes necessary for that mastery; and faculties determine the rigor, content, and examination strategies appropriate the award of a specified number of credit hours. Individual members of the faculty might propose the course and the credit it should bear, but most often it is their faculty colleagues who make the final determination through curriculum approval processes. It has proven to be a decent system that provides a way to tally up learning while allowing for considerable flexibility in delivering education and evaluating learning.
Colleges and universities that serve adult learners by recognizing achieved learning through portfolio evaluations or ACE credit equivalency determinations or CLEP testing have for decades unbundled credit hours from a rigid formula of seat time and study time. Colleges and universities that have integrated work-study and community service into their credit-bearing courses have as well. In making these important educational pathways work, expert judgments by faculties determine the award of credit hours, either by assigning those hours directly or accepting them in transfer.
I think back on the times that credit hours influenced accreditation actions when I was with the Higher Learning Commission. To be sure, truncation of a standard academic calendar most often triggered concern. Frequently, however, the key issues had less to do with time on task than rigor of expected learning. Inevitably, expert judgment of faculty rather than contact/study hours informed the decision about the appropriateness of the challenged credit award. Those evaluation team members pored over course syllabuses, evaluated the rigor of the assigned work and study, talked with teaching faculty and students, and sometimes reviewed samples of student work. In some cases they concluded that the award of credit was pretty much in line with industry standards; sometimes they proposed that the accrediting agency require that an institution rework its internal systems for determining the award of credit; and sometimes they found the disconnect between achieved learning and assigned credit to be so out of whack that they recommended denial or withdrawal of accreditation.
The Office of the Inspector General prefers auditable measures for performance. It reads the Higher Education Act with its multiple references to credit hours to demand such measures. It appears to propose that the Carnegie Unit is a pretty good place to start. It has little patience with the difficulty of translating professional judgment into some readily auditable matrix. Considering how little that OIG really understands about higher education, I was only a little surprised by how much weight that office placed on such a weak reed.
I was surprised by how quickly voices from the academy and the department proposed that educational quality should, indeed, probably be linked to the Carnegie Unit. A yardstick based on seat time and supposedly related study time to measure collegiate learning is just the wrong tool.
Years ago others wiser than I said it was time to find a new way to measure achieved learning. That advice was prompted not by the time-on-task mentality of the OIG but instead by growing discontent over the lack of dependable transfer of credits from one college to another. Credit hours in too many transfer debates become separated from the actual learning achieved by the student. Faculties in receiving institutions are more likely to question the fit of the curriculum represented by the credits than they are to question the award of the credit hours themselves. Frequently when credits transfer, they just don’t count toward the degree. But the transfer issue has not gained enough traction to bring about a community-wide review of the credit hour.
The current OIG challenge ought to be sand under the spinning wheels of the higher education community on this matter. If the inspector general decides that when it comes to credit hours the law requires something more measurable than professional judgment and if the department agrees, then instead of retreating to the old time-on-task formulas, the higher education community must hold up for review and major revision the credit hour system of measuring learning. The community has too much experience in assigning credit hours to very different learning experiences to try to return to artificial formulas based on contact and study hours.
Clearly no one is particularly interested in having the Department of Education lead this important exercise. Thanks to the much-vaunted decentralization of higher education in the United States, leadership for the endeavor is difficult to identify easily. But a dozen leaders from higher education associations, accrediting agencies, SHEEOs, faculty organizations, and interested foundations must find a way to create a process as important to higher education in this century as the National Education Association and Carnegie Foundation efforts were to the last century. After all, the Carnegie Unit and the credit hour resulted from that seminal work.
With the Carnegie Unit hanging around as the weighty fallback in these resurrected discussions of the credit hour, we must move with dispatch to recast this academic measurement to fit contemporary higher education and the learning achieved by students in it.
Steven D. Crow is CEO of S.D.Crow & Co.,  which consults on accreditation and other issues, and former president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.