Are Credit Hours Necessary?

Untraditional students seek higher education because they hit a
wall. Once they’ve committed themselves to obtaining a degree, however, they
often hit another wall: the archaic “credit hour” rules enforced by
the U.S. Education Department that demand extended time in classrooms and
discourage self-study and flexible online offerings.

Amy Laitinen of the New America Foundation has written an
important new critique of the system. She calls credit hours “an old, maddeningly irrational system” that
condemns students to “spending large amounts of time and money in pursuit
of degrees that don’t always yield the value promised.” She proposes that
the Education Department consider alternative educational arrangements that
award degrees based on learning outcomes rather than classroom time.

She examines a number of those alternatives. One is New York‘s nationally and regionally accredited Regents College
(now Excelsior College), which awards bachelor’s
degrees on the basis of “exams designed by subject-matter experts from
across the country.” The State University of New York’s Empire State
College allows non-traditional students to earn degrees “through guided
independent study and other modes of learning, including assessing credit for
prior learning.” Especially innovative is the fully accredited Western Governors University,
an all-online institution operated by a nonpartisan consortium of governors of
nineteen western states. Western Governors offers highly individualized
learning plans, in which students are initially assessed for competencies, given
a learning plan that allows them to acquire the competencies they don’t
possess, and then allowed to master those competencies at their own speed.
“Graders unconnected to the students determine whether or not a student
has met WGU standards,” Laitinen writes. Western Governors has managed to
comply with the credit-hour rules by using faculty as mentors–with the result that
its students qualify for federal aid under current Education Department rules.

One might fault Laitinen’s report for yielding to the Education
Department. It might be more fruitful to question whether one really needs a
college degree to become a paralegal rather than make it easier to obtain an
expensive degree in paralegal studies. Wouldn’t working in a law office
suffice? Still, it is encouraging that there is a movement to bypass the
outmoded credit-hour system and to support the 86 percent of undergraduates who
lack access to the traditional college experience.


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