Thursday, March 29, 2012

All You Can Learn?

A few days ago I mentioned that the credit hour must die, and several readers asked for clarification.  (In a Leslie Neilsen voice: “Death is the end of life.  But that’s not important right now.”)  

Now I see that a new for-profit, New Charter University, is trying to kill the credit hour.  I have to admit being fascinated.

As the Chronicle tells it, New Charter charges students a set fee per month as a sort of membership.  As long as their membership is current, students can take as many or as few courses as they want at any given time.  The courses are offered online -- “taught” might be too strong a word -- and students can move through modules at their own pace.  When they’re ready, they take exams.  As they accumulate something like credits, they move toward a degree.  (The article mentions that NCU isn’t regionally accredited at this point, so the degree may not count for much, but I anticipate the accreditation coming.)

It sounds like a wonderful setup for older, self-directed students who have significant life experience but lack paper credentials.  The beauty of it is that students who already know certain parts of courses can just blast through them and spend more time on the parts that require actual effort.  And since it’s self-directed and asynchronous, there’s no issue of transportation, work hours shifting, or the various stuff of life that makes showing up consistently in the same place and time for fifteen weeks a challenge.

Put differently, even if students earn “credits,” they don’t need “credit hours.”  The unit of time has been broken.  If you can blast through a basic course in ten hours instead of the prescribed forty-five, good for you -- your efficiency isn’t punished.  Conversely, if you need a hundred hours, well, hell, they’re your hours.  Take what you need.  Instead of failing after forty-five and retaking all forty-five -- including the parts you already mastered -- you can just take the time you need and get it right.

In a way, it seems like an obvious thing to try.  But ask any experienced administrator why we don’t, and we’ll all give the same answer: financial aid.  The entire financial aid system is based on credit hours which, in turn, are based on clock time.  And rather than getting away from that as distance education has rendered clock time less relevant, they’ve actually tightened the screws on clock time in light of perceived abuses in the for-profit sector.  NCU’s breakthrough is to skip financial aid altogether.  You put cash on the barrel every month, and it’s all you can learn.  How you get the cash is your problem.


To recap: productivity refers to value divided by time.  When your value is denominated in units of time, your productivity can never increase, by definition.  (Its cost can and will inflate, but that’s not the same thing.)  Public colleges -- those designed to serve people who may not have much money -- are legally forbidden to increase their productivity.  But for-profits can, as long as they skim only the student population that doesn’t need financial aid.  In other words, the sector that most needs to innovate is forbidden to do so, while its growing for-profit competition can barrel ahead without compunction or restriction.  And while the publics experience a pincer movement of flat productivity, increased costs, and decreased state support, the for-profits charge more than their cost of production and plow some of the proceeds into marketing, all the better to skim the students who aren’t constrained by financial aid.


The credit hour must die.  As someone who is dedicated to public higher education, and who believes strongly that the publics will be worth saving only if they stay good enough to attract people who have other options, I don’t like where this leads.  If we’re going to compete, we’re going to need to be free to experiment.  And we’re going to need the financial aid rules, union contracts, state regulations, and regional accreditation agencies to adjust, to let us do that.  They all assume the credit hour as traditionally understood, and they have the cumulative effect of tying us to an anchor.  No wonder we struggle to stay afloat.

I don’t know if NCU will work, but it’s trying some of the right things.  I’d love to see the publics free to experiment like that without forcing students to go without financial aid, but we’re not there yet.  Maybe, just maybe, a high-profile success in another sector will finally break the logjam.

So good luck, NCU.  I hope to be able someday to adapt some of your innovations to a setting that’s also based on access and fairness to everyone.  Preferably while the change is still voluntary.