The Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Education Department landed a stinging attack on an accreditor last month, with some potentially far-reaching ramifications, particularly for those trying to develop creative new models for higher education.
In an unusual "alert memorandum," the office lambasted a decision by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools to accredit the for-profit American InterContinental University—despite qualms over how that institution awards credits for some of its distance-education courses.
The alert said the decision "calls into question" the commission's ability to verify quality education. The alert, which also asked the Education Department to consider limiting, suspending, or terminating the commission's authority as a federally approved accreditor, raised the specter of a long and bureaucratic spat. (Any action would have little immediate effect on the more than 1,000 institutions it accredits in 19 states.)
And to the dismay of many who advocate on behalf of proprietary colleges, the high-profile move may also serve to stir simmering suspicions about the academic rigor of some for-profit universities, despite assurances from a spokesman for the university's parent company that the accelerated five-week, nine-credit courses at issue were "totally consistent with good practice and contemporary learning theory."
Still, many saw the potential for this brouhaha to jump-start a long-overdue debate: In the era of distance education and a growing movement toward the "unbundling" of higher education to allow for study outside traditional classroom formats, has the "credit hour" become a relic?
The credit hour "is the coin of the realm, but it's badly in need of an update," argues Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, the 10-year-old nonprofit institution known for its competency-based system for awarding degrees. "It's time we measured learning rather than time."
Mr. Mendenhall says many of the discussions about higher-education financing, quality, and accountability could be more productive "if we could redefine credit hour as a 'chunk of learning.'" After all, he notes, the issue for governments is whether they are getting their money's worth. "Ultimately they want to pay for learning, not for time. I don't know if they know that yet."
It's also hard to see how the credit-hour mentality fits with efforts like those of a new organization called DGREE. Backed by the Lumina Foundation for Education, the group will be convening 100 top thinkers this week from the world of academe and business (with a heavy presence from Silicon Valley) to begin creating a new college "ecosystem." The idea includes new tools, like a personalized electronic transcript, to help students complete their degrees, from a host of traditional and unconventional providers.
Higher education is moving past the point where "everybody assumes you have to have a lecture, plus a book, and it has to happen in a classroom," says Suzanne Walsh, of Lumina. In this new environment, she asks, do we really need the credit hour as a pricing measure, a financing measure, or even a faculty-workload measure?
Ms. Walsh, for one, says it is outliving its purpose and calls that the "next hot issue" for those seeking creative solutions to the cost of college—and potentially one of the most intractable: "It's almost up there with tenure."
Another group that has been thinking a lot about the credit hour is the National Center for Academic Transformation, a consulting organization that encourages colleges to use distance education and other forms of information technology to develop and deliver courses more effectively and inexpensively.
"The concept of a credit hour based on seat time is a relic," says Carol A. Twigg, the group's president. "But you have to have some kind of a currency that can be traded." The challenge, says Ms. Twigg, is to find a way to measure the course content "whether it's delivered at a distance or in an accelerated format."
"We've got hundreds of years of understanding of what a credit hour represents, whether you're going to class or not going to class," says Ms. Twigg. "The fact that it's called 'hour' is a problem."
If the inspector general's actions result in accreditors being pushed to strictly define credit hours. she says, "That would be a big mistake."
Meanwhile, the Education Department may itself take that step. Last month, during negotiations with 16 representatives of colleges and associations over new rules to govern federal student aid, the department proposed its own credit-hour definition, based on the Carnegie Unit (one credit would equal one hour of class time or direct faculty instruction and two hours of out-of-class work per week for approximately 15 weeks; in cases where there was no formal class, the college, with the accord of its accreditor, could establish equivalents). It's uncertain if this proposal will be adopted. Negotiators are expected to vote on the credit-hour definition, along with other proposed rules, in late January.
The scathing report on the North Central commission was not the first time the Office of Inspector General has challenged a regional accreditor over the credit-hour issue. In two separate reviews this fall, the office, an independent arm of the Education Department, raised similar questions about the standards used by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In both instances, the inspector general asserted that the accreditors' lack of consistent standards on credit hours could result in the inflating of credits and the over-awarding of federal student-aid funds.
In truth, of course, there has always been a bit of a fiction about credit hours as a universal measure of education. Under "a gentlemanly presumption," credit hours were mostly considered to be "equivalent across all kinds of institutions," says Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor of education at Stanford University who specializes in the sociology of higher education.
But now, the many models for the delivery of teaching and the diversity among institutions make "the fiction difficult or impossible to sustain," Mr. Stevens says.
The credit hour by itself, he says, "isn't a measure of quality, it's about quantity."
Mr. Stevens says the inspector general's attack on the North Central commission could be a landmark event. At a time when the general public is questioning the cost and value of higher education, this could "force the sector to measure quality in addition to quantity," he says. And for for-profit colleges, because "their quality is suspect" to some, there's an even greater opportunity. "The proprietary sector has a huge incentive to demonstrate quality."
Perhaps he's right. But don't look for American InterContinental's accelerated course format to be the test case. Despite its spirited defense of the approach, the institution says it began developing an alternate structure after initial accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission in May, and now says it may start phasing out the five-week, nine-credit courses as early as February.
But the question of what a credit hour means today, and in the future, isn't going away anytime soon.
(Originally appeared in the January 3, 2010 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, story by Goldie Blumenstyk).
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