It's Time to Break Up With the Carnegie Credit Hour
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
“We’d love to offer microcredentials, but our business model doesn’t work like that.”
We have invested millions, if not billions, of dollars into student retention and completion in the sincere belief that if we could just help students get more academically prepared, they’d be able to graduate and reap the economic benefits of a college degree. What if the problem wasn’t solely academic preparation, however? What if the problem is actually the structure and process of the higher education experience itself?
The entire financial structure and valuation of modern higher education is based on the amount of time a faculty member spends directly engaging with students. And the only reason that has become the foundation of higher education, which is generally resistant to any kind of standardization, is that back in the early years of the 20thcentury, at the dawning of the Industrial Age, the Carnegie Foundation needed some way to establish qualification standards for faculty retirement pensions, so they decided, arbitrarily, to use the number of hours of contact a professor had with a student as the bar. From this we have developed a foundational underpinning of everything else in higher education. The Carnegie credit hour is the hardest working unit of time in the world. And it is wholly incomprehensible to higher education leaders that they might do anything about it. You might as well attempt to turn night into day.
Accreditors rely on the number of credit or contact hours during a 15-week span as a proxy to assess degree content and an indication of academic rigor.
Financial aid distribution relies on a minimum number of credit hours for award qualification. Pell Grants are distributed based on fractions of full-time equivalency, which is 12 or more hours of class time a week. For students with fewer than 6 hours of class a week (6 credit hours), or less than half time, they get 25% of the full potential Pell Grant award. Which really means that their institution gets 25% of the full potential financial aid award. For other financial aid programs, the institution receives no reimbursement at all if a student is less than half-time. And college budgets are calculated on the basis of full-time financial aid because, over time, higher education has become highly dependent on public and private financial aid to subsidize tuition costs, which have skyrocketed far beyond what all but the most wealthy families in our country (and in other countries) can afford to pay out of pocket.
Faculty contracts are predicated on a certain amount of contact time with students.
Making any alteration at all to the way higher education currently operates has run into the stubborn Carnegie credit hour at every turn. The Department of Education had to create a special dispensation from the financial aid rules to allow for experiments with competency based education.
Institutions designed around administrative rules for faculty pensions are fundamentally not able to be fully responsive to student or community needs. As our culture has evolved past the formal structures of the industrial age, higher education’s internal structures remain atrophied in 1910. And students are starting to vote with their feet. Community college students at the Oregon Pathways to Opportunity convening on October 24, 2018 shared that they are making choices about their education based on the prohibitive cost of housing (an issue across the country, in urban and rural areas) and program length. Their goal is to get in and out with a credential that has market value as quickly as possible- and college does not make that easy, in large part because the system wasn’t designed with that as a goal. The system was designed to achieve maximum faculty work output in order to justify a substantial lifetime pension benefit.
As we shift to an economy that demands continuous learning, these structures are going to have to change. Old financial aid models with lifetime limits simply don't work anymore. Attending school full-time is a luxury few can afford after the age of 18 at this point. The iron triangle of cost, time, and quality is going to have to be re-examined. The market is demanding lower cost, shorter, high quality training programs that allow people to get in and out with the skills they need and increase their productivity in the workplace. The Carnegie credit hour has exhausted its utility. It’s time for a new measure. A measure of what actually matters.