US: Credit hour under attack

Despite eight months of intense lobbying by for-profit colleges, the US Department of Education proposed rules for student aid try to curtail funding going to questionable courses and programmes.

But the department has postponed regulations that would have ended federal student aid to courses that resulted in students with low income facing high student-loan debt. Actions by the deparment questioning accreditors' approval of what appear to be inflated credits have touched off a debate on the meaning and value of the 'credit hour' as measured in clock hours.

At the end of 2009, the department's Inspector General's Office issued an alert and criticised the Higher Learning Commission, an accreditor of more than 1,000 colleges and universities, for its decision to accredit the for-profit American InterContinental University.

The alert calls into question the commission's system for verifying quality education, including a five-week course at the university that awarded nine credit hours.

The ensuing response has generated extensive discussion challenging and defending the value of the credit hour. Opposition to the credit hour came heavily from virtual schools with their growing number of online programmes that have difficulty demonstrating clock hours of student engagement.

Condemning the credit hour as 'mere seat time', some online institutions advocate moving to a 'competency-based' system for awarding degrees.

Advocates for maintaining the credit hour point out that no-one awards credit hours for 'mere seat time'. To assert that is to belittle the work of teachers and professors who always evaluate the students in their courses.

A student who merely puts in the 'seat time' will get an 'F' and have to put in seat time again until that student can demonstrate to the teacher that they have learned the material.

The effect of shifting from credit hours to competency testing is really a switch from teacher-written internal testing that allows for ongoing assessment and variation, to external testing based on a standardised test.

While this push to redefine university credit had little traction a decade ago, just under half the US states have adopted external assessments and high stakes high school graduation examinations that minimise the importance of teachers' internal testing at the K-12 level.

Some state boards of education are considering replacing the Carnegie Unit which, for K-12, is 120 hours in one course, usually meeting four or five times a week in 40-60 minute classes for 36-40 weeks.

The 'credit hour' is a similar university measure based on lecture class hours (usually a 50- minute 'hour') per week for a semester in college, with multipliers for labs and practicals. Therefore, a 3-credit hour lecture means a class meets three hours a week for a semester and assumes several hours of study outside of class for each hour in class. The Education Department has just issued a proposal defining the credit hour as one hour of classroom instruction and two hours of student work outside class over 15 weeks for a semester, criteria that currently match definitions in some states.

While the debate has focused on what the unit means in student learning, the units are used for other purposes as well. This is described in the proposed policy: "A credit hour is a unit of measure that gives value to the level of instruction, academic rigor, and time requirements for a course taken at an educational institution.

"At its most basic, a credit hour is a proxy measure of a quantity of student learning. The credit hour was developed as part of a process to establish a standard measure of faculty workloads, costs of instruction, and rates of educational efficiencies as well as a measure of student work for transfer students.

"While the credit hour was developed to provide some uniform measure, it may not consistently relate to comparable measures of time or workload within institutions or between different types of institutions...."

The attack on the Carnegie Unit at the K-12 level was mainly driven by the last decade of teaching-to-the-external-tests imposed by the government's 'No Child Left Behind' programme. The US differs from most countries because education is decentralised and a responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

With more than 90% of school funding coming from each state's taxes, and each state having its own education governing agency, the federal government could only enforce curricula and testing by attaching requirements to federal funding.

The definition of a credit hour at the university level became a federal issue because federal funds are allotted for student grants and loans to college students - the government provides more than $20 billion in student aid annually.

Recent scandals involving some for-profit colleges and universities paying recruiters 'by the head' resulted in the Inspector General's crackdown on accreditation and congressional hearings examining the integrity of some programmes.

The House Committee on Education and Labor heard the Inspector General describe the complexity in determining programme quality.

While the American InterContinental University brought their credit hours in line, the president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools testified the definition of credit hour was "mushy".

Nevertheless, many lawmakers were sceptical of for-profit schools that enrolled students who might not be college ready and then leave them with high student debt and no employment.

The department's just-released regulations included tightening the prohibition on incentive pay for recruiters. The rules also require colleges to evaluate the validity of questionable high school diplomas, clarifies the department's authority to act against schools engaging in deceptive advertising, marketing or sales practices, clearly defines state responsibility for approving postsecondary programmes, and defines the credit hour and procedures for accrediting agencies to determine whether the assignment of a credit hour is adequate.

The proposed rules allow for a credit hour to be measured through learning outcomes but require that it be equivalent to learning accomplished in courses with the customary clock hours. The public has 45 days to comment and the finalised rules should be available in November and would take effect in July 2011.

But the department did not issue a rule that would cut off federal student aid to programmes if graduates have a high student-loan debt relative to their income. This 'gainful employment' issue has been contentious and the for-profit university lobby in Washington has been negotiating over these rules for the last eight months.

For now, they will have to show their coursework has equivalency to the standard face-to-face clock-hour course. They will not yet have to provide data on students with high debt and no job.

* John Richard Schrock is a professor of biology at Emporia State University in Kansas.