Is a New ‘Gold Standard’ Needed for the Student
Credit Unit?

This blog post was published on September 6, 2012 by the Education Sector publication, The Quick and the Ed. The Quick and the Ed offers in-depth analysis on the latest in education policy and research.  Education Sector is an independent think tank in Washington, DC.

The post was written by Jane Wellman, an Education Sector board member. Ms. Wellman served on AAC&U’s Board of Directors from January, 2008-January, 2012. She is the executive director of the National Association of System Heads, and the founding director of the Delta Cost Project.  In 2003, she joined Tom Ehrlich and a team of researchers on a national study of uses and alternatives to the student credit hour: “How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education:  The Tie That Binds.”

The student credit hour  “system” is the major currency of higher education.  It is a Mobius strip of a measure:  turned one way, it measures academic credits.  Turned another, it’s a measure of resource use, faculty workload, staffing, enrollments, and pretty much everything else.  It is loosely regulated by accrediting agencies (primarily interested in measures of academic credit), and by the federal government (primarily interested in preventing fraud in the administration of Title IV funds).  In economic terms, it is a floating currency; the value of units is quasi-market based and not standard across all institutions and disciplines.  As “non-traditional” types of educational delivery have grown, and along with them use (and potential abuse) of federal student aid, the federal government has pushed toward more prescriptive time-based measures for units, even as the accrediting agency standards have become more permissive, to focus units on assessments of learning and outcomes and less on time.

Amy Latinen, in a new piece for the New America Foundation in partnership with Education Sector, argues that the credit unit system is a major impediment to needed reforms in higher education, largely because it is not standardized either as to what it measures or how it is used.  She links the failures of the credit unit to the larger problems of degree attainment in higher education, in particular for “non-traditional” older working adults who are unable to enroll full-time in a degree program.  Her solution to the problem is to require that academic credits be justified primarily on the basis of learning outcomes.  She offers several options for accomplishing this, all done through an expanded federal role in assessing student learning outcomes in lieu of strictly time-based measures.   It’s a solution that would effectively move from a floating currency to a new gold standard for academic credits, based on assessments of learning that don’t yet exist and may not be possible, regulated by the federal government.

There are all kinds of complexities involved in forcing complete standardization of either the definition or the regulation of the credit unit.  A gold standard (or any standard) works because the unit of measurement is immutable and can be objectified.  Learning cannot be assayed the way that gold is. Even with better assessments, a shift to federal definitions of outcomes would simply change the basis for judgment from one group (the academy) to another (the federal government, presumably aided by the test companies or other assessment specialists.)  It is further not obvious that credits should be only based on outcomes, even as they shouldn’t be entirely based on time.  Student effort, the degree of complexity of the topic, engagement, the accumulation of learning across multiple disciplines, and sequencing of learning within a broader curriculum, are all legitimate elements of a comprehensive postsecondary education.   And lastly, equating of all forms of academic dysfunction to the credit hour is a bit of a stretch, certainly not sufficient to justify government regulation of academic policy which after all is at the center of decisions about credits.

The credit hour system doesn’t have to be changed to advance deeper work on learning assessments for the accumulation of credit.  Institutions around the country are working to do that, along with several national and international initiatives such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the Degree Qualifications Profile, and the tuning work.  If the problem with the current credit hour system is primarily related to the delivery of financial aid to non-traditional providers, then the fix should be confined to that—and should not leech into an expanded governmental role in academic policy.  By the same token, accreditors and institutions should be doing more to be explicit about their policies for the measurement and awarding of credits.  Total consistency in this matter is probably not a good thing; greater transparency however would be.

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