Most students entering college this fall will have their progress measured in increments of credit hours. A typical class usually awards students three hours, and about 120 are needed to earn a bachelor's degree.
But is that the best way to assess student learning? And what about those online classes where students can advance at their own pace? Should they be allowed to get credit based on mastery rather than logging a certain amount of time?
As colleges consider ways to reform and become more efficient, the credit hour is under fire. A new report released Wednesday from Education Sector and The New America Foundation, Cracking the Credit Hour by Amy Laitinen examines the history of the system in which one credit hour typically represents one hour of faculty-student class time each week in a 15-week semester.
The report suggest the approach has outlived its usefulness and is the root of many problems in higher education today.
Just 14 percent of undergraduates today have a traditional college experience of living on a campus and attending school full time, according to the report. This means that students are commuting, attending part time, and often starting at one institution and finishing at another.
It's in trying to transfer credits that students can lose ground toward their degree. "If credit hours truly reflected a standardized unit of learning, they would be fully transferable across institutions," Laitinen writes. This is one reason why the authors and others advocate a new way of measuring progress that is not as tied to credit hours but linked rather to learning benchmarks.
This concept isn't limited to higher education. Policymakers in K-12 are exploring the notion of competency-based learning, such as efforts in New Hampshire covered in Education Week earlier this year.
It is vital now as colleges are criticized for charging higher tuition but turning out students with degrees who are not always prepared for the workforce. "There is a curious disconnect between the widely held belief that American universities are great and the growing recognition that their graduates are not," the report notes.
Part of the problem with revamping the system is that the credit hour is tied to much of the structure of higher education from assigning teaching loads to federal financial-aid awards.
The report recommends a new regulatory framework that encourages higher education programs to be based on learning through assessments instead of seat time. If institutions are clear in determining what they want students to know and giving them credit for what they already know, getting a degree could be more meaningful, faster, and less expensive.
Laitinen concludes: "In an era when college degrees are simultaneously becoming more important and more expensive, students and taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for time and little or no evidence of learning."