It’s time to drop seat time

To save higher education, the “seat-time-based credit hour” has got to go, writes Community College Dean. It’s not sustainable.

In reaction to the large percentage of federal aid going to for-profits, Congress held hearings on accreditation and credits, the dean writes. Democrats defended the traditional credit hour, defined as 50 or 55 minutes sitting in class for about 15 weeks.

But online education has made seat time meaningless. Students can go at their own pace. Traditional classes that have migrated online tend to offer the same credits as the in-class version. But “as we start developing new courses online, and even entire courses of study,” that expedient isn’t always available.”

Some for-profits inflate credits to get more financial aid.

For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association gave its blessing to the institution that inflated its hours. Now some members of Congress are pushing for a federally mandated definition of a credit hour, to take it out of the hands of promiscuous accreditors and to prevent the squandering of taxpayer money on bogus courses.

That ensures that new ways of teaching won’t improve productivity.

If you declare that no matter what you do, you can’t award credit unless you’ve consumed the same amount of time as last year and the year before that, then you’ve guaranteed zero productivity gain. Worse, you’ve actually penalized any attempt to improve productivity.

Higher education’s failure to improve productivity has driven up costs for years now. It won’t be possible to “break the cost spiral” without breaking the credit hour, the dean writes. “Writing it into law is precisely wrong.”

If you want to break the growth of the for-profits, don’t do it by chaining everyone to dead weight. Improve the publics, and make us more appealing as alternatives; students will vote with their feet. Move money away from student-based aid and into institution-based aid; reverse the cost-shifting trend. That will strengthen the publics and make for-profit skimming much harder. But for the sake of all that is holy and good, don’t mandate that we must never move beyond the productivity level we had in 1950. That’s not helping.

We need better ways to ensure quality virtual learning, writes Bill Tucker on The Quick and the Ed, who suggests paying education providers based on results rather than enrollment. To assess whether students are earning their credits, he advocates end-of-course exams and looking at how students do in the next course in the sequence. If that’s not possible, he suggests requiring online providers to save students’ work so an outside evaluator can see if the credits granted were justified. Providers that grant credit for remedial courses would be responsible for the students’ future work.