Credit Hours Should Be Worth the Cost, House Panel Members Say

June 17, 2010

The day that the Education Department released proposed rules to define a credit hour, Congressional Democrats took an accrediting agency to task for not setting minimum standards for how much time students must spend in the classroom.

The U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor heard testimony on Thursday from the Education Department's inspector general and Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation's major regional accrediting organizations. Late last year, the department's inspector general recommended that the department consider limiting, suspending, or terminating the commission's authority as a federally approved accreditor after the commission gave its stamp of approval to American InterContinental University, despite a review that found the institution had inflated the amount of credit it was awarding for a small group of courses.

As a result of that recommendation, the Higher Learning Commission is negotiating with the department on ways to set more explicit standards for a credit hour "without being prescriptive," Ms. Manning said at the hearing.

The standard of a credit hour, which is not actually a full 60 minutes in most cases, is deeply embedded in higher education as a benchmark for earning a degree. But the definition of what constitutes a credit hour has become muddled in recent years with the increase in online education.

The Education Department is seeking to bring some clarity to that issue with its proposal to define the credit hour as one hour of classroom instruction and two hours of student work outside the classroom over 15 weeks for a semester and 10 to 12 weeks for a quarter. Institutions and accreditors, however, would have some flexibility under the proposals to develop alternative measures.

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House education committee, said defining a credit hour is critical to ensure that students and taxpayers, through federal financial aid, are not footing the bill for courses that are not worth the amount of credit being awarded.

If it's a for-profit institution that is getting more money for a course than it's really worth, Mr. Miller said, then the awarding of credit hours could become a part of a company's business plan to bolster profits.

A 'Mushy' Concept

Ms. Manning said her organization shares committee members' concerns about the rising cost of higher education and accountability for federal aid dollars. But strictly defining a credit hour is a complex issue, she said, because credit is now related more to what students should learn during a course than the amount of time they spend in the classroom.

"Anyone who has ever taught or taken a class knows the concept of credit hours is mushy," Ms. Manning wrote in her prepared testimony to the committee.

Instead of setting a strict definition of what a credit hour should be for an institution, the commission relies on its peer reviewers—typically drawn from a corps of faculty members and administrators at similar institutions—to determine if the content of courses is compatible with the amount of credit a college awards for them, Ms. Manning said.

In the case of American InterContinental, the commission was able to persuade the institution to correct the credit hours it was awarding for the specific courses, she said. If the commission had simply denied accreditation to the institution, the college would have kept awarding the inflated credit because it was already accredited by another regional organization, she said.

Democrats on the committee, however, were critical of the commission for accrediting American InterContinental before seeking to correct the deficiencies in credit hours and pressed Ms. Manning on whether a more specific definition of credit hour would prevent such a problem in the future.

Rep. Timothy H. Bishop, Democrat of New York, said he found the state government's strict limits on credit hour helpful when he was provost of Long Island University's Southampton College. He asked what would be the harm of having a minimum definition of that standard.

Ms. Manning replied that having a definition of what constitutes a credit hour won't do any harm, but it also doesn't help accreditors or institutions set a standard for how much students are learning.