Cracking the Credit Hour

Policy Paper
Sept. 5, 2012

The basic currency of higher education — the credit hour — represents the root of many problems plaguing America's higher education system: the practice of measuring time rather than learning. Cracking the Credit Hour traces the history of this time-based unit, from the days of Andrew Carnegie to recent federal efforts to define a credit hour.

But study after study shows that the graduates of our fine institutions are not measuring up in the "real" world. Many employers say that college graduates aren't well-prepared to succeed on the job. There's a curious disconnect between the widely held belief that American universities are great and the growing recognition that their graduates are not.

If the U.S. is to reclaim its position as the most-educated nation in the world, federal policy needs to shift from paying for and valuing time to paying for and valuing learning. 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.

Cracking the Credit Hour outlines several indications that the credit hour is antiquated:

  • Schools themselves don’t believe that the credit hour represents learning. Colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges. Given that 59 percent of college students attend two or more schools, non-transfer of credits results in waste of time and money.
  • Seat time caters to an increasingly rare “traditional” student who lives and studies on campus.
  • Only 14 percent of undergraduates attend full time and live on campus.
  • Online and for-profit education has skyrocketed in the past decade.
  • While some students earn credits for little more than sitting in class, millions of professionals who have acquired college-level learning on the job have no way to get credit for their learning.

The report shows the credit hour is putting our nation's workforce and future prosperity at risk. It outlines several steps the federal government can take now to shift from measuring seat time to learning.

To read the full report, click here.