Credit Hours – The Tie That Binds

The ubiquitous credit hour figures largely in higher education. From our first orientations sessions when sincere advisors explain the reasons that we needed nine credits of this or fifteen credits of that, to counting credits when planning for graduation, to looking at jobs and institutional practice – academic credit is the currency in the realm of higher education. Kind of odd, isn’t it?

As an undergraduate, my first questions about credit related to the widely different worth, workload, and expectations of respective classes. Some demanded a great deal of effort and others much less. Why did they both reward me with three credits? Was I credited with learning the course’s content? Calculus certainly demanded work, and I gladly accepted credit for it – but even way back then I was aware that I was forgetting it almost as soon as a I learned it.

Within the CUNY, like most higher education systems, the credit is a unit of faculty work. Contracts mandate that different kinds of faculty teach certain numbers of credit-hours per year. The numbers often to not align, with credit hours awarded for administrative responsibilities or scholarship opportunities. Faculty then bank their hours for use at some later point.

Credit hours are also a significant concern in revisions to the curriculum. Credit hours are a measure of student interest, which many faculty translate into administrative interest and support. Fewer credit hours across a unit can often be interpreted as a warning or omen, real or imaginary.

Transfer students, too, obsess over credit hours.  At CUNY, we did the same kind of bean counting when bartering with other institutions about the transfer of courses or students. Why is Economics 101 4-credits here and 3-credits there? Is there a credit less of work or learning. It might make sense, or at least seem to make sense, if the contact hours between faculty and student correspond, but they often do not.

These and many other issues are in How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education: The Tie That Binds, Jane V. Wellman and Thomas Ehrlich, editors, Jossey-Bass, 2003. The book raises many questions, answers some, and avoids others. It is, however, the bible of the credit hour.

The credit hour, Jessica M. Shedd informs us, emerged in the late 1800s to help with admissions and variations in high school curricula. The “Carnegie Unit” was adopted in 1909 and linked to retirement benefits for professors.  It caught on. The Carnegie Foundation further pushed for clarity when supporting the study of Morris L. Cooke, who wrote “Academic and Industrial Efficiency.”  Cooke’s argument looked at a “student hour” to assist in his study of academic efficiency.How The Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education

The credit hour stuck and became increasingly important after WWII as state and federal government became increasingly comfortable pushing for standardization and accountability. With budgeting and efficiency goals looming large in the 1970s and 1980s, credit hours figured largely in the equation. And here were today.

The book – comprised of nine chapters by four authors – looks at the credit hour as a barrier to innovation, as a help to greater efficiency and control, as a factor in accreditation, as a factor in student transfer, and as a site of ongoing debate. There is no one clear definition of what, exactly, a credit hour is. There is much more agreement, on the other hand, that we need it. And the authors note that it is not necessarily a problem, either.

The credit hour was a metric designed many years ago for one purpose; today it is essential and used for different purposes. With non-traditional learning increasing a rapid rate, I expect that increasing pressures will be put on the credit hour. It will prove unsatisfactory for particular kinds of learning and certification. That “non-credit” world is demanding acknowledgement, however, and the monopoly status that the “for-credit” world enjoys will be attacked.

At the top of the academic food chain, issues of accreditation and credit hours resonate less. Faculty are not bound by credit-hour contracts at research one universities.  The game is different. Accreditation and credit hours make a difference one and two tiers down, and this is where the real battles will be fought. These institutions feel the threat of the non-credit, non-traditional world of education. Cornell is not loosing market share to University of Phoenix, but many other colleges are. These other institutions of higher education need to maintain the monopoly, to control the flow of credits, in order to maintain long-term viability.

Will the elites join the fight? Probably not. Will the public care? Only if the broad middle band of higher education institutions can make the value proposition clear – that accredited, that is, credit-granting institutions, are worth the expense.

David Potash