Skipping lightly over 350 years of history, we will take the bachelor's degree as the true given of American higher education. Since we do not have a ministry of education, the definition of this degree is imprecise, variable and sometimes even fluid, as independent and autonomous institutions experiment, compete, modify, and adapt.
There are bounds, of course. States and accreditors ensure that level and scope remain consistent with commonly understood and accepted standards. Not fixed, but clearly recognizable.
Lest we be diverted, we will also have to disregard the 100 year chronology of the Carnegie Unit (CU) and focus on its present role.
In the life of a student and in the career of a teacher, four years is a very long time. The term is a more tractable unit, and at a time when colleges all offered similar programs of limited variety, it probably sufficed. Students moved through college in lock step and there was less of a need for a measure of accomplishment on a course by course basis.
That's not true anymore, and the Carnegie Unit has emerged as a means of identifying accomplishment and progress towards a degree. But it is not a mute measure of elapsed time!
Again, the fundamental given of higher education is the totality of the degree. This involves a content path, a variety of teachers, courses building on one another, and it involves strategies developed over 100 or 150 years of experience. The degree structure encourages a slow but steady change in topics and emphasis to enable courses to remain relevant, fresh, and comprehensive. This in turn enables a students to leave college and enter a job, a career, graduate program, or the professions.
The degree encompasses a generally agreed upon quantity of material delivered over four years, and the CU provides an orderly means of breaking down this totality. The degree presents a coherent track, an organized program, and a series of accomplishments, and so too must the CU.
But the Carnegie Unit is intended to be used only in conjunction with other information. Along with curriculum, catalog description, prerequisites, grades, grade point average, and distribution requirements, credit hours can help describe effort, content, and accomplishment.
A credit hour makes sense only when there is a background of distribution requirements, junior or senior level course work, a degree map, and a topic under discussion. Making progress toward a degree depends on all of these characteristics. The three credits earned in Chem I cannot be offered to replace three credits in Accounting. Indeed, poor planning could leave a student with 150 or more credits and no degree!
Everyone within higher education understands the limits of the Carnegie Unit as well as its usefulness as a medium of exchange, or a lingua franca.
The CU enables useful and easy conversations to take place between departments and among schools. Without this shorthand, every interaction would have to encompass consideration of content, rigor, and intellectual challenge. With it, a course map can be agreed upon that lists 40 courses across 10 departments in an easily comprehensible manner, without the details and minutiae of each course.
The allocation of credit hours is neither mindless nor haphazard. Credit hours are determined by the quantity of material a student is expected to acquire, by the rigor, and by the intellectual challenge he or she will face. So too, the time and effort. History, experience and professional judgment all influence the decision to assign a certain number of credit hours to a certain quantity and intensity of material.
There is within each field and each subject area a commonly understood level of prerequisites, skills, and competencies that students must bring to bear in addressing a conventional college course. A norm is established, and vigorously protected. Experts in any given field can usually look at a curriculum, a textbook, or an examination and deduce whether or not the credits being offered for the course are consistent with common usage.
There are variations of course, but within reason. A student presenting three credits in Calculus 101 will find acceptance of these credits virtually everywhere.
There is a cross-fertilization enhancing the norm that occurs as students become faculty members elsewhere, as faculty members change campuses, as students transfer, as textbooks become widely available, as graduates enter professional programs, and as accrediting team visitors travel to different campuses. Comparisons and conversations, as well as experience, all help create a common credit hour currency which speaks volumes in academe, but only haltingly everywhere else.
For the most part, it is a tenured (and largely jaundiced) faculty that jealously protects the integrity of the courses they teach and the degree that they stand for. While there may be grade inflation in some schools, there is rarely credit hour inflation.
A teacher who does not complete his/her course's goals will at one point or another hear from a colleague teaching a more advanced course to students who do not have all the necessary prerequisites. A school whose students do poorly on the bar examination will examine all aspects of the program leading to graduation. This is all part of a vast self-correcting mechanism that protects students and protects the enterprise.
Also important is the textbook marketplace, in which a handful of texts have gained widespread acceptability at least partially because there is an excellent fit with commonly agreed-upon course descriptions and the number of credits assigned.
Difficulty with allocating credit hour appears at the peripheries. Programs that are unusual in their content or structure, weekend programs, accelerated programs, study abroad, experimental and innovative programs all have a common burden: assigning a certain number of credit hours which signifies accomplishment and progress towards a degree, and which are consistent with the norms of higher education.
Courses offered in conventional format are usually associated with a certain quantity of seat time. This, in turn, provides a template against which courses delivered in unfamiliar or unconventional format can be measured. Teachers who have offered the same course on campus and online know what to expect of students at the end of a course and will also be an excellent source of information for assigning a reasonable number of credit hour to the online (or weekend, or study abroad) course.
We do not live in a wild west environment. While there are innovative and nontraditional programs of all kinds, accomplishment is almost invariably measured against existing bricks and mortar classroom time. There are glitches -- but that's all they are. With several million different courses (and assigned Carnegie Units) offered each year, a handful of extravagant claims do not a national emergency make!
In this connection it's worth noting that it is not the role of the accreditor to "give guidance" in matters relating to credit hours. The assignment of credit hours is a faculty's prerogative and responsibility. It is the accreditor's role to ensure that this was done in a reasonable manner consistent with the field and with broad norms. This, of course, is why site visitors are comprised of experts capable of making such judgments.
For completeness, it's important to mention two parties which, by design, use the credit hour as a simple measure of time.
College administration is one. Different courses require different talents, unequal effort ("I fill up two blackboards each period while he plays movies."), dissimilar exam grading burdens.... None of these factors plays a role in determining faculty salaries -- nor should they. The system works, with every faculty member teaching the same number of credit hours.
Government is the other. Student financial aid takes no notice of differences in subject area, level, course title, rigor, challenge, or school reputation. The Department of Education has avoided interfering with the internal workings of postsecondary schools and should continue to do so.
But herein lies a danger, because there is a disconnect between the Department's usage of the CU and the manner in which it is understood and used in higher education. This is the reason we are being asked to define the credit hour as a simple measure, when as noted above, its use and understandings are quite comprehensive and quite complex.
Defining the credit hour will undo the easy exchange, the ready conversations, and the fuzziness which sometime enables us to coexist. It will generate considerations of other indicators which will similarly have to be precisely defined. Will we accelerate students according to their grade point averages? Will a 4.0 student in physics trump a 4.0 in sociology (or vice versa)?
Will teachers be paid according to the number of students they teach? According to their brightness? Their preparation for the course? Will students pay more for a 45 hour program in a philosophy seminar than a survey course?
In our litigious society, we have to keep an eye on the inevitable aggrieved student. Did he fail the course because the teacher did not provide a full 50 minutes of teaching? Does humor constitute a part of the teaching hour? Does the time spent by some other student talking constitute "teaching"? How about the time spent by the teachers walking up and down the aisles watching as students work a computer assignment? And how do we determine that the student has devoted two hours of out-of-class student work? Will we have cameras, beepers, monitors? What constitutes two hours of out-of-class student work?
Defining a credit hour has implications that could conceivably cause great dislocation and misunderstanding in higher education.
If there are concerns, they are rare. And these unusual episodes should not be allowed to drive higher education, just like the rare high school "diploma mill" student should not be permitted to impose on all of higher education another costly, time consuming, and unnecessary burden.
Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.
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
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.