Is it time to dump credit hours?

“Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning,” writes Amy Laitenen of New America Foundation in The Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour.

“If credit hours truly reflected a standardized unit of learning,” students wouldn’t have so much trouble transferring credits from one college to another, she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

. . .  colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges, underscoring their belief that credit hours are not a reliable measure of how much students have learned. If higher education doesn’t trust its own credits, why should anyone else?

. . . Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard. . .  . Those in higher education must roll up their sleeves and commit to the hard work of figuring out together what it is they expect students to know and how best to meaningfully assess what they have learned.

Some colleges are experimenting with the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which creates a framework for what students should know and be able to do, regardless of discipline. Lumina also has created Tuning, a process for faculty to “fine-‘tune’ their expectations and make them clear to students, other institutions, and employers,” writes Laitenen.

. . . federal policy can help catalyze such efforts by leveraging the government’s authority to use financial aid—a huge incentive for institutions—to pay for learning. Today the multibillion-dollar federal financial-aid system runs on the credit hour. And it gets only what it pays for: time.

Richard Schur, an associate professor of English at Drury University, likes the credit, he writes, also in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Education is a process, not a destination,” Schur writes. It’s “not reducible to a set of facts or skills.”

My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates. What is interesting about Socrates is that he doubted his wisdom, so he interrogated those who claimed to possess competency, experience, and knowledge. What he frequently learned was that those who claimed to have the answers rarely did.  . . . the Socratic dialogue, imitates what should be happening in the classroom, with its give and take between student and teacher.

I know that the critics of the credit hour will point out how the example of Socrates illustrates precisely what is wrong with the existing model. First, Socrates did not have clear learning objectives for his students; his dialogues meander all over the place. Second, there was no outcome assessment, so we are not sure what, if anything, his interlocutors actually learned from these sessions. Third, this would be a very costly model to implement, especially with all the feasting and drinking. Fourth, this kind of education seems to privilege a life of luxury and wealth, which does not match the backgrounds of today’s students. Last but certainly not least, it is not clear that any of Socrates’ students ever got jobs, probably violating the “gainful employment” rule.

Time matters, argues Schur. It takes time “to have conversation, work on building student habits, develop relationships, and to try to make students into good citizens.”

Too many credits

Many community college students earn more credits than they need on the way to an associate degree, concludes a Community College Research Center study by Matthew Zeidenberg. Excess credits cost about $6 million a year, counting only courses students passed.

New students often don’t know what they want to study, he writes. They may try courses that won’t count for the degree they eventually choose. Even when they decide on a goal, there’s “limited advising” to help them take the right courses.

Structural or scheduling barriers also play a role. For instance, a student may need to take course A, but that course may not be available or convenient in a given semester; it may be full or scheduled at a bad time for the student. Instead, the student takes course B in order to maintain full-time status and remain eligible for financial aid. Or a student may be waiting to be accepted into a program and may take other courses in the meantime. Colleges have indicated that this is common in the case of nursing programs.

In some cases, students who go on to four-year institutions can transfer their excess credits, but often students face the reverse problem: Credits that were supposed to transfer are rejected.

In some cases, students earn excess credits for useful courses, Zeindenberg writes. But others are “spinning their wheels” because of “poor advising, unstructured program pathways with excessive electives, unclear transfer policies, and structural barriers.”  Students pay in time and money.

Time, not tuition, is the enemy of completion

Time, not tuition, is the enemy of college completion, writes Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, in a Washington Postop-ed. President Obama’s campaign to limit tuition increases misses the real challenge, which is getting students to graduation, Jones argues.

Today, most college students commute to campus while juggling part-time classes, jobs and often family obligations.

The longer it takes to graduate, the more life gets in the way and the less likely that one will ever graduate. More time on campus also means that more is spent on college, adding high costs as another driver of dropouts. In this instance, time is money.

Less than half of U.S. college students complete a degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

 Because cutting time cuts costs, the president can achieve the savings he seeks for students and taxpayers by linking federal investments to college results and targeting the greatest obstacles to graduation: failed remediation programs that waste time and money; broken policies that make it hard for students to transfer credits; students roaming the curriculum excessively instead of following structured, career-focused programs; creeping credit requirements; and schedules designed more to please faculty than to help working students.

States aren’t waiting for federal leadership, Jones adds. Thirty governors have pledged to set graduation goals and develop student success plans. That includes “paying colleges for the students they graduate, not simply for those they enroll.”