Re-examining the age-old credit hour

A growing group of schools is exploring a ‘competency-based’ model instead.

by Tyler Gieseke


Nursing sophomore Mary Guck is taking 18 credits this semester — more than the recommended 15 to stay on track for four-year graduation.

Guck said she feels she has less work than normal, despite her credit load — according to University of Minnesota policy, each week she should be spending three hours on classwork per credit.

A century after its creation, the credit hour has become the standard unit of a college student’s educational progress, serving as the basis for graduating and certain financial aid.

But some in the higher education community say the credit hour isn’t an accurate measure of learning. A small but growing number of institutions nationwide are using a “competency-based” credit model, typically for online degrees. Achievement units correspond to skills gained rather than seat time in class, allowing for accelerated, less expensive education.

While some say this new model can better demonstrate learning and lower the costs of higher education, others say the credit hour is too entrenched to make sweeping changes — and that the college experience is an important time of self-exploration that shouldn’t be cut short.

An experiment in education

Currently, many competency-based programs are geared toward students who work or can’t afford higher education.

Rather than being tied to elapsed time, the competency unit at Western Governors University, for example, focuses on learning, said Patrick Partridge, the school’s chief marketing officer.

WGU’s student body is primarily working adults returning to school, he said, but includes teens through 70-year-olds, mostly in undergraduate programs. The online school was founded in 1997.

Shana Eccles, WGU student and single mother of two, earned her bachelor’s degree in business with information technology management in a little over 2 1/2 years, and said WGU’s model allowed her to test out of a course and receive the appropriate competency units whenever she felt ready.

The hands-on aspect of Eccles’ degree and the ability to tackle coursework at her own speed was appealing, she said, especially because she has to balance study with work and caring for her family.

Eccles said she normally worked through about 24 credits every six months. In comparison, the University recommends students take 15 credits a semester.

Once, Eccles said she completed a course in about two weeks.

“It just depended on what was going on in my life,” she said.

Now that she’s graduated with a bachelor’s degree, Eccles is pursuing her master of business administration also at WGU.

At College for America, a new online competency-based program out of Southern New Hampshire University, many students are working adults with low wages, said Chief Academic Officer Cathrael Kazin.

The program is currently in its pilot stage and will officially launch in September.

For now, Kazin said students aren’t charged and act as the program’s co-creators.

The program was formed to lower costs, increase access for low-income students and offer more job-ready skills, she said.

Students in the program get a competency transcript that includes a list of “can do” statements describing abilities. For example, the transcript might read, “can write a business memo,” she said.

“This is really the language that employers speak,” Kazin said.

Following an “all-you-can-learn” model, the program will cost $2,500 a year.

In addition to a competency transcript, students receive a transcript showing the number of credit-hour equivalencies they’ve completed. This transcript is necessary, Kazin said, so students can use their competencies in the broader higher education community.

Still, there’s nothing magical about a credit hour-based, 15-week semester, she said.

“It’s an administrative convenience, but it’s … come to rule how we think about education.”

A time to ‘‘grow and develop’’

Some think talk of reworking the credit hour may be misguided.

Drury University associate professor Richard Schur said the conversation regarding the changing landscape of higher education seems to be wrongly centered on costs rather than quality.

A college education should help a student become a good citizen, he said — someone who makes good decisions and possesses virtue.

“I think college is a really important time — and I would emphasize the word ‘time’ there,” for people to “think, reflect, grow and develop.”

Although he acknowledged the credit hour isn’t perfect, Schur said the conversation seems to be focused on making higher education cheaper and faster rather than better.

“We don’t know what we want our institutions of higher education to do,” he said. “One of the first things we need to figure out is, ‘What are we trying to accomplish?’”

Currently, many competency-based models use online learning, something that University of Minnesota professor Sally Kohlstedt said may not provide the skills a classroom experience can.

These skills, like learning to identify and solve problems, are part of the University’s “student learning outcomes.”

“It’s not that I think it can’t [provide what a classroom can], but it’s a little bit like, ‘Show me,’” she said. “You do need to put in a certain amount of time to show that you gain that competence.”

Competency-based and seat time-based credit models could work better for different students, said Jay Hatch, an associate professor in the University’s Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.

He said one student might work best independently while another needs motivation and regular class time to learn material.

“I think it’s a slippery slope if what you’re trying to do is argue that either way is a better way for a given student,” he said.

For Guck, education is about  learning from someone and interacting with peers — online classes don’t provide enough motivation.

“You don’t put the effort in,” she said.

Chemical engineering sophomore Emily Schmitz agreed, saying a competency model might address students’ different learning rates, but learning in a traditional classroom at a steady pace provides motivation to keep going.

A century-old tradition

When it was created more than 100 years ago, the credit hour wasn’t meant to measure students’ learning.

Though it’s now the default for measuring student achievement, it was originally designed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a way to determine faculty pensions, said Elena Silva, a senior associate at the foundation.

The credit hour seems to be a “hold-over” from traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, Hatch said.

“[It’s] a simpler way to keep track of what students are completing,” he said.

The Carnegie Foundation has received a grant to reconsider the credit hour’s viability in the modern context.

With online learning and other advancements in technology, Silva said students no longer have to sit with certain people to learn.

Silva said a Carnegie team is meeting with schools using the competency-based credit model to better understand it, and the team will continue to pin down some of the concerns over shifting away from the time-based credit.

The team will examine whether a competency-based model would make sense for liberal arts degrees — or if it only would work with certain occupations, like an associate’s degree in a technical skill.

But the foundation isn’t saying the credit hour needs to change — yet.

“We’re starting this project with an open mind,” Silva said.

U faculty cautious

A lot rides on the credit hour — from getting help paying tuition to securing a degree.

The number of credits a course is worth corresponds with the approximate number of hours spent on the class each week to give students and faculty members an idea of the time commitment a course requires.

Although some departments’ classes seem to align with this policy, others offer classes with workloads disproportionate to the number of credits, Schmitz said.

Despite nationwide discussions of the credit hour and the competency model, the model hasn’t come up at meetings of the Faculty Consultative Committee, said Kohlstedt, who’s the committee chair.

But that doesn’t mean faculty members aren’t talking about these topics, Kohlstedt said.

“It’s not as though we’re not reading the Chronicle of Higher Education,” Kohlstedt said. “We want to know what’s out there.”

While Kohlstedt said she hasn’t noticed a push to move toward a competency-based credit model at the University, she said faculty members have been discussing how to potentially award credit for massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But the discussion surrounding MOOCs, she pointed out, started a long time before the University decided to create its own.

“We don’t move to every new idea that comes along.”

A ‘‘resurgence in interest’’’

In response to increased interest in competency-based programs, the U.S. Department of Education sent out a letter last month to higher education institutions detailing how competency-based programs could qualify for federal financial aid funding.

The first program to qualify for aid was College for America.

“[Competency-based programs] are not particularly common at this point,” said Kay Gilcher, director of the DOE accreditation group. “However, within the last, let’s say, six to eight months there’s been a resurgence in interest.”

To qualify for funding, programs must show how their competencies align with the credit hour, she said. Federal aid regulations are written in the context of credit hour programs, not programs using the competency model.

The rules could change in the future, but it would take time, she said.

“Who knows what Congress might do?” Gilcher said. “Everybody is sort of approaching this with a certain amount of caution.”