The Conflicting Economies of Credit Hours and Learning

A systemic problem in higher education is the academic credit system.  An academic credit is a unit of time, a measure of currency, that was originally designed to help with the tracking of faculty workload. In that economy, it is a relatively reliable measure.  In the economy of student learning and accomplishment, however, the academic credit hour is a much less helpful unit. In fact, reliance on the credit hour is a significant problem that is getting worse because of federal policies that have been implemented in an attempt to ensure academic quality and the proper use of financial aid.

The challenges to rethinking the academic credit system are enormous, especially when one considers implementation. However, the shortcomings of academic credit hours are increasingly visible, particularly with the rise of online learning opportunities. It is an issue that was recently tackled in an important new report from the New America Foundation. Authored by Amy Laitinin, Deputy Director Education Policy Programs, Cracking the Credit Hour highlights the inadequacies of the academic credit hour system as well as attempts over the years to establish alternative measures. The Gates and Lumina Foundations supported the report.

Cracking the Credit Hour resurrects the valuable earlier innovations of Charter Oak State College, SUNY Empire State College, and Thomas Edison State College, as well as more recent work by Western Governors Association (WGU) and Southern New Hampshire University. The important thrust of Laitinen’s report is neither the problem or the history: it is the proposed path to a solution. Reform and change will come not from within, but from the government, Laitinen proposes:

If the U.S. is to reclaim its position as the most-educated nation in the world, then federal policy needs to shift from paying for and valuing time to paying for and valuing learning. What’s needed is a new regulatory framework that not just allows but encourages the creation of higher education programs based on learning instead of time. Many of the tools needed to make this shift are available to federal policymakers right now.

Higher education should pay close attention. With the cost of a college education increasingly moving beyond the reach of middle class Americans, substantive change is on the horizon. The credit hour will be part of that transformation. And while innovation is taking place within academia, the direction and resolution is far from clear. As institutions of higher education will rationally pursue self-interest and self-advancement that may, or may not, serve the public, policy makers and politicians will increasingly see the value and need to intervene. As Laitinen rightly observes, external intervention has been an important factor in higher education reform for decades.

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