The Beginning of the End of the Credit Hour

Paul Fein of Inside Higher Education reports that the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging experimentation in competency-based education. Specifically, they are allowing federal financial aid to be used for degree programs that are not built around the credit hour:

At College for America, for example, students work at their own pace on online assessments of 120 competencies. There are no courses or professors in the associate degree program, although faculty reviewers oversee assessments. The degree costs $2,500 per year, which could be $5,000 if a student works on it for two years, or $1,750 if he or she finishes in six months, according to Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s president.

Defenders of the credit hour raise the specter of fraud:

Department officials said they would take a cautious approach to granting eligibility to degree programs that sever ties to the credit hour, which has been used as a yard marker of quality in higher education for a century. One reason is to prevent fraud and the misuse of federal aid dollars, a risk they said applies to any form of higher education.

But as Amy Laitinen explains in “Cracking the Credit Hour,” defining courses in time-based rather than competency-based units is particularly harmful to the interests of nontraditional students. Part-time students hoping to complete a degree or upgrade their skills while working to support a family are at a particular disadvantage under a time-based approach. One interesting aspect of moving beyond the credit hour is that it might encourage individuals to invest in human capital throughout the life course. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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