Wednesday, September 05, 2012

 

Don’t Forget Self-Interest...

As regular readers know, I’ve carried on a bit of a crusade against the credit hour for a while now.  The credit hour is a time-based measure that essentially forces colleges to measure outputs entirely in terms of inputs, thereby defeating any productivity gain.  Combine that with Baumol’s cost disease -- by which sectors whose productivity rises more slowly than the average are doomed to higher real costs over time -- and higher education is in a tough spot.

Amy Laitinen, of the New America Foundation, issued a must-read report this week that provides some excellent context.  Among other things, it reveals that the initial impetus for the credit hour as we know it came from Andrew Carnegie trying to find a basis for faculty pensions at Cornell, where he was a trustee.  Credit hours were initially used to equate different high schools, but they quickly became the coin of the realm in higher education, even though they were never tied to student learning.

Dissent came early; Laitinen mentions serious misgivings about the overuse of the credit hour as early as the 1930’s.  But it solved several bureaucratic problems, and has since become, by default, the way that colleges denote work.

Laitinen notes, correctly, that the absence of content in the credit hour is made clear when one college won’t take transfer credits from another.  But this is where I have to offer a friendly amendment.

Yes, it’s true that a three credit class at college A may well have different outcomes than a similarly-titled three credit class at college B.  But that’s not the only reason that transfer credits get denied.

Most of us at community colleges have been through this dance a few times.  Credit hours don’t only count what students have taken; they also denote what professors have taught.  Credit hours are the way that FTE’s are calculated, which can have direct impact on state funding.  They’re how individual teaching loads are calculated, and over time, they’re part of how departmental staffing allocation decisions are made.  

Which is to say, a department at a receiving school that “gives away too many credits,” as I’ve had it said to my face, potentially hurts its own claim on resources.  Being too generous on transfer credits can cost a department jobs.

There’s a standard playbook for departments that want to deny transfer credits.  One way is to fudge the distinction between 200- and 300- level courses.  That way, it can deny credit for transferred 200-level classes by claiming that they’re really at the 300 level.  They can play with prerequisites, require idiosyncratic sub-sequences, or change the number of credits that a given course carries.  Or they can just assign anything threatening to “free elective” status, which is where credits go to die.

Laitinen notes, correctly, that there’s some theoretical room to move in the definition of the credit hour, but that recent clampdowns in financial aid have made colleges wary of trying anything.  (The reaction to abuses of financial aid in the for-profit sector has had a severe chilling effect among community colleges.  Ironically, handcuffing community colleges actually strengthens the for-profits.  You’d think someone would figure that out...)  But there are also very real issues of self-interest at every level.  I would be shocked to see faculty stand idly by while students were awarded non-trivial amounts of academic credit for learning in venues where the faculty did not teach; the faculty would see that as a direct threat to their continued employment.  (That’s lurking below the surface of much of the discussion of MOOCs, for example.)  

A reform that would actually take hold has to do more than overcome the flaws of the current system.  It would also have to address, in some meaningful way, the self-interest of the various actors in place.  Some people would probably lose something, obviously, but a reform that isn’t in any of the incumbents’ best interest will fall prey to interest-group politicking.  

Still, kudos to Laitinen and the New America Foundation for doing the homework to explain how we got where we are.  It clearly isn’t where we should be, and I suspect that the longer we cling to where we are, the more vulnerable to external disruption we’ll be.  But the crafting of alternatives, if it’s going to work, will have to take seriously the less-exalted motives of the current actors.  Without that, well, read the quote from 1938.

Comments:
Dartmouth College does not have the credit hour. If a course is worth credit, it is worth 1 credit. If it is not worth credit, then it is worth 0 credits. You must accrue a certain number of credits (distributed appropriately) to graduate. Organic chemistry with a seven-hour lab is worth 1 credit. A freshman seminar is worth 1 credit. Gym is worth 0 credits.
 
Neither does Vassar, and Oberlin is about to switch too. 1 credit/unit for one course; some courses are worth .5 credits/units (labs associated with a science lecture, half-semester courses, that type of thing).
 
DD climbs on his hobby horse and tilts at his favorite windmill: "The credit hour is a time-based measure that essentially forces colleges to measure outputs entirely in terms of inputs, thereby defeating any productivity gain."

As pointed out many times, this is simply false.

1) It is not based on time in the classroom. We have had credit-by-exam (often with nearly zero hours in a classroom) for a half century or more, AP credit (where the time in class is more than twice that in college), competency-based progress (perhaps at your own pace), and now hybrid classes. All are judged by outcomes, not time. The equivalency is merely bench-marked against the outcomes for a "traditional" class on a certain subject, not time in a seat.

2) It does not defeat productivity gains, which can be achieved by such means as large lecture classes, video distribution of lectures via CCTV or Cable or our new favorite: the Internet MOOC. Most of those gains were achieved 40+ years ago. Whether a MOOC can really match the productivity of one person lecturing 2000 students remains an open question.

3) The example of transfer credit is also instructive. I know of various instances where a specific course from one college will be accepted because the outcomes match what is expected in the equivalent course at the other school, but others are rejected because they do not measure up. This might be alien to your experience in the Evergreen disciplines, but little is to be gained in technical fields by forcing a student to wait an entire semester because of one minor pre-req course. They only reject them for good reasons.
 
I don't dispute the reality of the factors you're outlining, DD. However, you left out one big one that, since it's on some level a judgment call, and is unrelated to self-interest, is hard to factor into the system you describe. That is, a 2-credit class prepares a student less well for the next level of study in that discipline than a 4 or 5 credit class. And when it comes to deciding whose 3-credit class will be accepted for transfer credit, the same dynamic comes into play.
 
Hampshire College also has no credit hours assigned to courses. It seems to work well in that setting.

My CC follows a series of rigid credit-hour rules set by a (Washington) State board. Even so, pretty much every course is 5 (Quarter) credits, so it just does not seem to be a big deal.

The thing that has annoyed me the most about the credit-hour system is that lab hours are discounted by one-half. This has served as a disincentive to introduce laboratory-style work in non-science courses that have not traditionally had labs. If we could get rid of that issue, the whole credit-hour basis would seem like an OK system.

Of all the issues to take on in higher ed, this doesn't seem to me to be near the top of the list.
 
Fascinating that others don't see this as a huge issue! For me, the credit hour is right up there with federal financial aid in the unintended consequences/impact/parameters it sets for what we can do in higher education. DD and I are both administrators - maybe that impacts perception? (not in any way claiming administrators have the most accurate perception of the issue)

The credit hour is how we organize faculty work, how we verify what students know (so many credits in XYZ subject), how we organize learning. When we envision a new way of teaching or asking students to learn, we have to reverse engineer it to the credit hour or the impact on financial aid, transferability, graduation requirements, etc etc etc is huge.

Yes, there are ways to work around this - exams (structured around the outcomes of a 3 credit course), testing out of modules that comprise a 3 credit course, but we are still shackled to the credit.
 
I'm still trying to figure out what DD's proposed change is.

As others have pointed out, it's not true that credit hours are 100% tied to time-in-seats.

1) I teach a 3-credit-hour online course. I don't feel any need to record 150 minutes of lecture a week, I just cover the amount of material that is, in my judgement, appropriate for a 3-credit hour class.

2) Many students earn credit for HS classes where the time-in-seats is greater but the amount of material is (hopefully) the same.

3) A good number of schools (add Union College to those that have already been listed) work in terms of courses rather than credit-hours.

4) Even in on-site classes, there isn't a universal relationship between class time and credit-hours. One of my classes is 3 credit hours for 2.5 hours per week. Another is 4 credit hours for 5.3 hours per week. A third is 4 credit hours for 6.3 hours per week. The latter two have labs.
 
I admit I drop in only occassionally to check your blog, but I always find it interesting. The credit hour, I admit is flawed but it became part of a complex system. What needs redesigning is the whole system, not just one part.

The credit hour is used as a workload measure (sign up for 49 hours this semester and you will kill yourself, that kind of thing). It is used as a part of the GPA system (don't get me started) but in a more complex way than most people note. It took some research but freshman level courses were normed to a centrist grade of C, as you moved up to classes with more prerequisites, that grade was supposed to rise until it was essentially a B for senior level courses. (Grad school was normed to a 3.5 GPA being the standard being a part of the same system.)

These are just some of the ways "load hours work for faculty and students." At least they were supposed to. I taught freshman chemistry for decades. The average grade tended to be C+, the equivalent entry-level psychology courses had average grades of around B+. Why is this? It is because there isn't a real system in place. This is a whole house of cards.

Something is needed to guide students (pre-requisites and sample programs seem to work well), something is needed to help them figure workloads (nothing we have is working, really). Something is really needed to organize the teaching profession around student accomplishments. This is the real need.

Now, starting with a blank piece of paper ... .
 
I admit I drop in only occassionally to check your blog, but I always find it interesting. The credit hour, I admit is flawed but it became part of a complex system. What needs redesigning is the whole system, not just one part.

The credit hour is used as a workload measure (sign up for 49 hours this semester and you will kill yourself, that kind of thing). It is used as a part of the GPA system (don't get me started) but in a more complex way than most people note. It took some research but freshman level courses were normed to a centrist grade of C, as you moved up to classes with more prerequisites, that grade was supposed to rise until it was essentially a B for senior level courses. (Grad school was normed to a 3.5 GPA being the standard being a part of the same system.)

These are just some of the ways "load hours work for faculty and students." At least they were supposed to. I taught freshman chemistry for decades. The average grade tended to be C+, the equivalent entry-level psychology courses had average grades of around B+. Why is this? It is because there isn't a real system in place. This is a whole house of cards.

Something is needed to guide students (pre-requisites and sample programs seem to work well), something is needed to help them figure workloads (nothing we have is working, really). Something is really needed to organize the teaching profession around student accomplishments. This is the real need.

Now, starting with a blank piece of paper ... .
 
I admit I drop in only occassionally to check your blog, but I always find it interesting. The credit hour, I admit is flawed but it became part of a complex system. What needs redesigning is the whole system, not just one part.

The credit hour is used as a workload measure (sign up for 49 hours this semester and you will kill yourself, that kind of thing). It is used as a part of the GPA system (don't get me started) but in a more complex way than most people note. It took some research but freshman level courses were normed to a centrist grade of C, as you moved up to classes with more prerequisites, that grade was supposed to rise until it was essentially a B for senior level courses. (Grad school was normed to a 3.5 GPA being the standard being a part of the same system.)

These are just some of the ways "load hours work for faculty and students." At least they were supposed to. I taught freshman chemistry for decades. The average grade tended to be C+, the equivalent entry-level psychology courses had average grades of around B+. Why is this? It is because there isn't a real system in place. This is a whole house of cards.

Something is needed to guide students (pre-requisites and sample programs seem to work well), something is needed to help them figure workloads (nothing we have is working, really). Something is really needed to organize the teaching profession around student accomplishments. This is the real need.

Now, starting with a blank piece of paper ... .
 
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