What’s in a college credit? In trying to define a credit’s worth, the Department of Education continues to equate credit with “time spent learning rather than with the learning outcomes,” writes Julie Margetta Morgan, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The proposed regulation defines a credit in three ways (pdf):
One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work for 15 weeks in a semester or trimester program.
An equivalent amount of work to one hour of classroom time and two hours of out-of-class work for other academic activities such as laboratory work, internships, practica, or studio work.
Reasonable equivalencies to the amount of work required in one hour of classroom time and two hours of out of class work, represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement.
All three options are based on a “butt in chair” standard, Morgan writes. Even the third option is based on seat-time equivalency.
This standard makes it impossible to know whether a student with an engineering degree from Dartmouth College is learning the same amount as a student with an engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. All we will know for certain is that they both sat in classrooms for 120 hours and hopefully completed 240 hours of work on their own time.
Federal regulators want to prevent colleges — typically newcomers at the “fringes of higher education” — from inflating credits to collect more money from students, who rely on federal aid. But regulators are ignoring another problem, the crisis in college completion.
A better definition of the credit hour is a necessary component of any plan to improve college completion rates. Researchers identify transfer of college credit across institutions as a key to increasing completions since almost 60 percent of students transfer during the pursuit of a college credential and many lose credits along the way due to flawed credit transfer agreements among institutions. One of the central stumbling blocks in the credit transfer conversation is that administrators cannot compare course credits across institutions because all the credit tells them is the number of hours spent learning.
An improved standard for assigning credit should be based upon outcomes, not inputs. An outcomes-based definition would improve comparability across institutions, and it would bring us closer to the kind of transparency students need to judge the quality of educational options.
As more students sign up for online courses, it’s even more critical to measure learning outcomes, she writes.