New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the Credit Hour

NEJHE’s New Directions for Higher Education series examines emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
The convergence of forces driving change in higher education is transforming the academic enterprise—reinventing what a university is, what a course is, what a student is and what the value of higher education is.

One significant sign of change could be the end of the credit hour—higher education’s prevailing unit of measure. This century-old, time-based reference for measuring educational attainment used by American universities and colleges is under serious scrutiny by its creator, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

In this first installment of the series, Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, speaks with Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation about the foundation’s efforts to study alternatives to the current system and the possibility of recommending revisions to the credit hour.

The context

The Carnegie Foundation’s scrutiny of the credit hour and the recent decision by the Department of Education clarifying and outlining a process for providing federal aid to students enrolled in “competency-based” programs could represent a re-thinking of how colleges might award “credit”—based not on time spent in class but what students actually know. Up until now, the federal financial aid system has generally run on the credit hour.

Since 2003, the federal government has been examining the idea that federal financial aid could be awarded based on the amount of learning a student had achieved, rather than the amount of time spent in class. However, the recent decision by the department outlining a process for providing federal aid that utilizes direct assessment of student learning could have a sweeping impact on higher education.

Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education sees the “breaking free of the tyranny of the academic calendar” and offers the scenario where undergraduates mix the direct-assessment approach with the seat-time approach. This would allow students to increasingly take advantage of such experiences as study abroad, apprenticeships and research.

While some in the higher education community are already engaged in an effort to move away from the credit hour toward the development of more meaningful evidence about students’ competency, complications will certainly arise.

In the book How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education: The Tie That Binds: New Directions for Higher Education, editors Jane Wellman and Thomas Ehrlich observe that the credit hour measures everything from student learning to faculty workload. It shapes how time is used, how enrollments are calculated, and underpins cost and performance measures. Wellman and Ehrlich note that examination of the rationale for the metric is long overdue and the measure itself may be “perpetuating bad habits that get in the way of institutional change in higher education.”

As the basis of a measurement that knits together our otherwise disparate system of higher education, it is conceivable that the credit hour is an outdated artifact. However, thoughtful reflection by higher education leaders will be required to align internal institutional processes and procedures with new measures of attainment and the new directions transforming the academic enterprise.

Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk.

Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk.

The Interview

DiSalvio: The Carnegie Foundation has a legacy of educational leadership. Its work as an initiator, innovator and integrator to improve teaching and learning has had enormous impact on higher education. What was the original motivation in creating the credit hour as a time-based reference for measuring educational attainment?

Bryk: The Carnegie Unit emerged in the early 20th Century, when only 10% of students completed high school and a very small number attended college. Standards were low or non-existent in many secondary and postsecondary institutions and the boundaries between the two sectors were blurry. It was a very different educational landscape than today’s.

Andrew Carnegie believed professors to be “the poorest paid and yet one of the highest of all professions” and sought to support them financially in their retirement. But in an era of widely varying standards, creating a pension system for professors required a definition of what constituted a legitimate “college.” The foundation’s key criteria included a requirement that institutions had to have no fewer than six full-time professors, offer a four-year course of study in the liberal arts and sciences, and require for admission “not less than the usual four years of academic of high school preparation” This last standard suggested that four years of high school should total 14 “units” of instruction, each unit representing 120 hours of class time with an instructor.

Because colleges wanted to participate in the Carnegie pension system, they worked hard to meet the foundation’s eligibility criteria, causing the credit hour to be widely implemented in higher education. And because high schools wanted their students to be eligible to attend Carnegie-eligible institutions, they quickly adopted the credit hour as a standard for high school graduation.

So, in its time, the Carnegie Unit was a progressive reform of the American education system. Over time, however, its uses have moved far beyond those originally intended.

DiSalvio: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has announced it would use a $460,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to study the Carnegie Unit. Why is the Carnegie Foundation interested in putting this higher education measuring stick for academic quality, accreditation and access to federal financial aid under scrutiny?

Bryk: The Carnegie Unit helped standardize course requirements. But it was never intended to measure the quality of teaching or learning, and it isn’t well-equipped to do so.

As a result, many in higher education (and secondary education) have called for new measures of student progress tied more closely to what individual students know, measures that can more effectively than the current Carnegie Unit strengthen teaching and learning.

There is also a growing body of research suggesting that students learn in different ways and at different paces, and that organizing schools and colleges to reflect these realities might enhance student learning.

And others suggest that the Carnegie Unit impedes the introduction of new technology-delivered instruction and assessment that could increase access to higher education by reducing costs and giving students great flexibility in where and when they learn.

We want to hold up the Carnegie Unit to the light of these and other emerging perspectives, especially given our focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning.

DiSalvio: Some have observed that there is a growing opposition to the credit-hour status quo and some have said that the credit-hour model is outdated and inefficient. What is the Carnegie Foundation’s view?

Bryk: The project is a broad exploration of such issues. It doesn’t start with any preconceived notion about what a better solution would look like. It’s open to whether there are alternatives or supplements to a time-based unit of measurement, but there’s much terrain to explore and many conversations to organize to answer that question.

DiSalvio: The federal government has signaled support for the nontraditional credit-earning model. In rethinking the value of the Carnegie Unit, would a likely alternative be a standardized unit of measure around competency, rather than time spent in class? How will this shift help advance competency-based higher education?

Bryk: The most obvious way to shift away from a seat-time-based measure of student progress would be to measure their mastery of material regardless of the where and when they achieve that mastery. So a competency-based model is certainly one of the topics we will be exploring. But there are substantial challenges to implementing competency-based systems at scale. There’s a groundswell of enthusiasm about the potential of competency-based models. Our job is to dig deeply into all of this, asking questions such as: Who sets the standards for competency? What kind of infrastructure would be necessary to create and sustain a competency-based system? What would we lose if we moved away from a time-based metric?

A re-envisioned Carnegie Unit sounds exciting, but it becomes very complicated when you think about implementing a change of that magnitude.

DiSalvio: The effects of changing the credit hour as a time-based measurement of student learning could be considerable since the credit hour drives student and faculty workloads, schedules, financial aid and degree requirements. What impact will a possible change have on American colleges and universities?

Bryk: The effects of changing the credit hour as a time-based measurement of student learning could be considerable. As you’ve noted, student and faculty workloads, institutional accreditation, access to federal financial aid and other critical elements of the higher education system are linked to the Carnegie Unit.

Our goal over the next year is to broadly engage experts and critical actors in colleges, universities, school districts and professional organizations—those who endorse change and those who point to the current Carnegie Unit’s strengths—to explore the future prospects of the Carnegie Unit. Understanding how a change in something so deeply embedded in the fabric of secondary and postsecondary education as the Carnegie Unit is the challenge.

If change does occur we must be extremely thoughtful about what we are doing. We could do both harm and good. It’s difficult to introduce change into complex systems like secondary and postsecondary education. It will be important to anticipate and fairly evaluate all of what could likely happen if a change of this magnitude were put in motion. Being thoughtful about all sides of the issue is a critical approach we plan to take.

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