Rethinking Credit Hours and Degrees

It’s (past) time we think beyond a measure for learning developed in 1906, James B. Thelen writes.

November 22, 2022
A phonograph.
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Credit hours. Semesters. Degrees. They’re the fundamental backbone of today’s higher education system, and they’ve not changed in meaningful ways in more than a century. Learner needs and expectations for higher education, on the other hand, have changed dramatically over that time.

The country was vastly different in 1906, when the concept of the credit hour was first established by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Americans were still listening to music on their phonographs. Although an early car had managed to drive across the country in 63 days as a publicity stunt only three years before, travel was still largely local and mostly by horse and carriage. Ford’s Model T was two years away, and the first airplane had taken off for a 12-second flight above Kitty Hawk only three years earlier.

Now, we stream our music through our houses and cars on Spotify or Pandora, walk or run with it piping wirelessly in our ears through earbuds or AirPods, and manage our personal playlists on Apple Music, Google Play Music or MusicBee. We might leisurely drive across the country in a week or less in our zero-exhaust electric car, stopping at one of the 6,000 fast-charging stations scattered around the country to keep the EV battery going. Or we might jet literally around the world in a matter of hours.

Has higher education evolved as dramatically? In short, not really, and a seemingly stingy reliance on the credit hour seems to be at the root of it.

Amid all this technological change, higher education still measures most students’ progress through the semester and toward a degree by the credit hour. Each credit hour is meant to signify a student spending one hour in class and another two hours doing work outside of class, each week, over a semester that’s typically 15 to 16 weeks long. When the student amasses the arbitrary count of 120 credit hours with passing grades, she typically gets a degree—with only a quarter to a third of the hours in the degree subject area, and more often than not with no meaningfully holistic assessment of what the student actually knows and could apply in the real world.

Criticism of the model isn’t new, dating back to as early as the 1930s and the Carnegie Foundation itself, whose president at the time, Henry Suzzallo, recognized in the foundation’s 1934 annual report that the arbitrary time-based credit hour should give way to “more flexible, more individual, more exact and revealing standards of performance as rapidly as these may be achieved.”

And yet, over the decades since, we’ve come to organize nearly the entire higher education enterprise around that more than century-old time measure of instruction: most tuition is charged by the credit hour, faculty workloads (collectively bargained or otherwise) are mostly set by or organized around the credit hour, and billions of dollars in federal financial aid are conditioned on a system measured by the credit hour, with most undergraduate degrees requiring students to simply complete 120 credit hours of instruction, but still without a meaningful qualitative demonstration of the ability to apply knowledge gained in real-world 21st-century situations.

That’s not to say innovation isn’t possible and even underway.

In a 2015 study, while acknowledging that its credit hour standard could be “an impediment” to some innovation, the Carnegie Foundation concluded that America’s colleges and universities nevertheless have “considerable flexibility” to pilot and assess new instructional formats and delivery modes. A number of competency-based education (CBE) programs are now flourishing, offering alternatives to time-measured credit hours and flexibility to working adults to earn CBE degrees by starting shorter programs outside the traditional semester schedule and demonstrating mastery of program competencies at their own pace.

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The college degree could give way to alternatives, as educational foundations, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations team up with businesses to explore and pilot degree alternatives such as microcredentials. Microcredentials, which can be obtained much more quickly than traditional degrees, are digital records that certify an individual’s competency with a particular skill or set of skills. They can be earned at any time and stacked with other microcredentials to demonstrate readiness for particular jobs. Organizations such as Digital Promise—backed with significant support from such luminaries as MacKenzie Scott—are studying the impact of microcredentials on the social mobility of rural learners in Georgia, Kentucky, Maine and Tennessee, with a focus on those impacted by poverty, particularly Black, Latino and Indigenous populations, as well as women. And in Europe, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities recently declared that microcredentials are a “powerful vehicle to fundamentally transform the nature of university-based learning and the role of higher education in helping to address important skill gaps and wider societal challenges.”

Even the traditional degree itself is getting new attention. Released first in 2011 and updated most recently in 2021, the Degree Qualifications Profile is an effort of the Lumina Foundation and the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment to offer a standardized learning-centered framework for what college graduates should know and be able to do to earn the associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Credit hours. Semesters. Degrees. Improving them has proven a challenge, and replacing them is likely to be even harder. Even if warranted, an evolution from time-based credit hours and degrees to competency-based learning could be chaotic, as Arthur Levine and Scott J. Van Pelt observe in their 2021 tome, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future (Johns Hopkins University Press).

But work on that evolution is nevertheless underway, and it has the potential to bring the scale and pace of innovation in higher education more in line with society and learner needs now and into the future. A great deal of commitment, planning, creativity, assessment, funding, political will and buy-in from all stakeholders will be necessary for its success.

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James B. Thelen is currently an independent higher education consultant and lawyer who most recently served as vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and chief legal officer for the University of Maine system.

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