Monday, June 21, 2010

You’re Not Helping!

Last week Congress held some hearings on accreditation requirements and the definition of the credit hour. In reaction to the increasing percentage of federal financial aid that’s going to students at for-profits, and the somewhat generous interpretations some for-profits have had of the ‘credit hour,’ Democrats decided to mount a spirited defense of the seat-time based credit hour.

Note to Congressional Democrats: you’re not helping! The credit hour is the wrong hill to die on. If anything, it’s a major part of the problem. And I say that as both a bona fide lefty-liberal and a community college administrator.

Honestly, this seems to be one of those cases in which people seem to take sides depending on who their allies are, rather than the logic of the position itself. Democrats usually have strong backing in traditional higher ed, so they’re taking a position they presume will be popular there. Republicans have no use for higher ed generally, and have an ideological weakness for privatization, so they’re siding with the for-profits. But the logic of the positions is backwards.

The crisis of public higher education isn’t the for-profits. It’s unsustainability. The for-profits are just a symptom of that. And the credit hour is part of the unsustainability. If you want to save public higher ed, both for its voters and for the actual good that it does, you need to let it find a sustainable way of operating. This isn’t it.

Generally, a credit hour has been defined as fifty or fifty-five minutes of class per week for about 15 weeks, plus the presumed out-of-class work that goes with it. Most classes carry either three or four credits. For the sake of simplicity, the minutes of class are usually referred to as “seat time.”

In the best of times, it’s a slippery definition. Although it measures time-in-a-room, it doesn’t really measure time-on-task. And the ‘out-of-class’ component is essentially taken on faith. In my years on faculty, nobody ever told me that I was supposed to calibrate the out-of-class time to a specific ratio, and I didn’t. Based on the varying amounts of work I did for classes as a student, I’d be hard-pressed to say that they hewed to any consistent rule.

Even if we agreed to look past those, though, two major problems have arisen that are eating away at the foundation of the entire conceit. One is online education, and the other is cost.

Part of the definition of online education is that it renders the concept of “seat time” unintelligible. Some people read (and write) more quickly than others, and the presentation is usually asynchronous. “Go at your own pace” is part of the appeal. For courses that were originally developed in a traditional format and have simply migrated online, credit-hour designations usually reflect how they started. (If in-class Psych 101 was three credits, then online Psych 101 is also three credits.) But as we start developing new courses online, and even entire courses of study, that expedient isn’t always available.

As weak as the original ‘anchor’ for determinations of credit hours was, its absence seems to allow for a college to say that just about anything can count for just about anything. This is the loophole some for-profits exploited, inflating the credit hours granted for instruction in order to maximize the amount of financial aid revenue they’d realize. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association gave its blessing to the institution that inflated its hours. Now some members of Congress are pushing for a federally mandated definition of a credit hour, to take it out of the hands of promiscuous accreditors and to prevent the squandering of taxpayer money on bogus courses.

It’s as if online education never happened. But it has.

Worse, though, a time-based definition of productivity -- a three credit class requires forty-five hours of seat time, say -- writes “zero productivity gain” into law. To understand this, you have to understand that ‘more productivity’ does not mean ‘more work.’ It means ‘more accomplished in the same amount of time.’ If you get more work done by just working longer, you aren’t increasing productivity; you’re just doing more of the same. Failure to understand this has led to all manner of misplaced polemic.

If you declare that no matter what you do, you can’t award credit unless you’ve consumed the same amount of time as last year and the year before that, then you’ve guaranteed zero productivity gain. Worse, you’ve actually penalized any attempt to improve productivity.

When the productivity of the economy as a whole is increasing a few percent a year, and higher ed isn’t, then all else being equal, we should expect the cost of higher education to outpace inflation by a few percent a year. Which is exactly what it has done for the last few decades. Add some cost-shifting from the public sector to tuition, some unfunded mandates, and the occasional boondoggle, and you’ve got a really impressive cost spiral.

If you want to save public higher ed, you have to break the cost spiral. That means you have to break the credit hour. Writing it into law is precisely wrong.

If you want to break the growth of the for-profits, don’t do it by chaining everyone to dead weight. Improve the publics, and make us more appealing as alternatives; students will vote with their feet. Move money away from student-based aid and into institution-based aid; reverse the cost-shifting trend. That will strengthen the publics and make for-profit skimming much harder. But for the sake of all that is holy and good, don’t mandate that we must never move beyond the productivity level we had in 1950. That’s not helping.