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Credit For Actually Learning–Not Time In Class–Is Shaking Up Higher Education

Competency-based learning is the new hot trend, but no one is quite sure how to replace the credit hour.

Credit For Actually Learning–Not Time In Class–Is Shaking Up Higher Education
[Photos: Lane V. Erickson via Shutterstock]

The credit hour is the standard way of measuring achievement in U.S. higher education. It’s the unit students have to accumulate before they can graduate. It’s used in assessments of how much to pay faculty. It’s an organizing force on campus and in relations between institutions. It’s a currency that everyone understands–but also something that an increasing number of people criticize. Are students really learning or time-serving? Does making everyone learn at the same pace hold back students who could learn more quickly, and does the credit hour-system raise costs unnecessarily?

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In its place, a growing number of institutions are developing courses based on “competency”–or what students actually learn–rather than the number of hours they put in. Competency-based education (CBE) is a hot topic among policy-makers, foundations, and colleges because it has the potential to lower costs, broaden access to education, and perhaps raise standards. But, as two new reports point out, CBE isn’t a perfect solution. In some cases, it may be more expensive than the traditional model, and, importantly, it’s still unclear what could replace the credit hour as a universal unit.


The first report comes from the American Enterprise Institute and looks at the current “landscape” of CBE. Author Robert Kelchen identifies 34 colleges offering some form of CBE. Not all of those publish enrollment data, but, of the nine that do, he counts a total of 140,000 undergraduates and 57,000 graduate students on CBE programs currently.

CBE seems to open up college to older people. Nine out of 10 of the students Kelchen found are over 25. About half are studying part-time, presumably because they also have to work and/or look after families. The programs themselves take different forms. Some grant credit based on backwards-looking assessments of learning (“prior learning assessments”), some just on the assessments of whether students have mastered new material.

The institutions include Alverno College, in Milwaukee, George Mason University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and the University of Wisconsin, which offers “Flex Option” degrees (we wrote an in-depth post about that program here). It gives three months of “all you can eat” access, allowing students to complete as many competency tests as they like. The flat-rate cost is $2,250. Other programs charge for packages of credits, plus fees for exams and assessments.

Kelchen argues that CBE is not necessarily cheaper than traditional degrees, partly because many programs don’t offer federal aid. Some students could get Pell grants for standard degrees, for example, so would be at a disadvantage taking CBE courses. Or, depending on their level of preparation, motivation and the amount of time they have, students may not be able to complete all-you-can-eat courses quickly enough to make the cost worthwhile. It’s like a gym membership: how expensive it is depends on how often you go.

The more fundamental question is how to assess the quality of CBE teaching and how to replace the credit hour. That’s the subject of another report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT). It concedes that the credit hour is problematic because it “discourages educators from examining more closely students’ strengths and weaknesses” and “masks the quality of student learning.” But it also notes that the credit hour ensures students receive consistent amounts of teaching time, plays a vital role in the administrative functioning of higher education, and “makes possible innumerable exchanges and interconnections among institutions.”

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The credit hour, in fact, was never designed for its current role. It was invented by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie a century ago–and named the Carnegie Unit–as a way to pay faculty pensions. It wasn’t meant as a proxy for what students learned; that’s what tests and exams are for. The report says throwing out credit hours isn’t a panacea, and it’s surely right. After all, there are lots of reasons why colleges fail to teach students properly, why students don’t bother learning, and why employers say graduates are unprepared. It isn’t all linked to the credit-hour, despite what some suggest (this is a good example of the credit hour critique).

CFAT says we should move slowly, in case we throw out the good with the bad. “American education has a long history of promising reform ideas that have failed to achieve their intended outcomes,” it says. “It is one thing to have good ideas for change; it is another to execute effectively and efficiently in our large, complex educational systems.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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