CLAIM: Credit Hours as a Basis for Educational Accounting Will Disappear

There’s lots of talk about competencies versus seat time as a means for tracking educational achievement.  I’m not sure if I think of this more as a prediction or a recommendation, but I suspect credits and credit hours will fall by the wayside over the next decade.

This is tricky business for a number of reasons.  Post-Bologna Process European higher education has actually moved more in the direction of a credit system (ECTS) motivated by the principle that students should be able to move around among institutions and across national borders.  Similar concerns exist in the US system where maintaining the pathway from junior colleges to four year institutions is a priority.

The credit hour is also intimately tied to the tuition-driven business model.  Measuring learning in terms of inputs translates easily to designing the college or university in terms of easily tracked outputs and tying these to the main factors that go into producing them: teaching and classrooms.  We can depend on a degree amounting to about 4 years of tuition paid to somebody and it helps to regulate the flow of people through the process.  A side benefit of this is that it also ensures an average level of maturation during the process — regardless of the effect of the education itself, students are at least about four years older  Accounting for education in terms of credits also makes it possible to avoid the actually difficult tasks of comparable evaluation and certification.

But there are a number of things that weigh in favor of this outcome:

  • For better or worse, conversations about the bottom line quality of degrees shifts the focus from time spent in school to what was learned there
  • An ever widening distribution of levels of academic preparation will require more and more remedial and introductory level instruction unless the entire model shifts to simply “value added” (as in, the students know more at the end than at the beginning but with varying levels of achievement depending on the starting point)
  • The availability of alternative learning venues will undermine our capacity to say, in effect, “you have to learn it from me.”
  • In the extreme our monopoly on the credential itself could easily be threatened by alternative certification processes.
  • The trans-disciplinary nature of the problems of the next fifty years will almost certainly require graduates to solve them via intellectual “mash-ups” that combine knowledge that may or may not come in 14 week sized chunks.
  • Organizationally, most institutions of higher learning are not nimble enough to respond to changes in their environments using courses, majors, and traditional departments.  Abandoning credits is one way to acquire some nimbleness without dismantling the entire system.
Of course, the conversation will go nowhere in the absence of a viable alternative.  Contemporary views vary, but there seems to be an emerging consensus that we have not yet figured out what might replace the credit hour.  The ECTS and the United Kingdom’s Qualifications and Credit System and Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile all manner of “badges” proposals are among the frameworks that are out there.  Missing from all of them, I think, is an exploration of their impact on the organization of our institutions.  That would seem to be a necessary component if we want to move the conversation forward.

See also

  1. Carey, Kevin. 2012. “Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?” New York Times December 9, 2012
  2. European Commission. 2013. European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) 
  3. Fain, Paul. 2012. “More Cracks in the Credit Hour.” Inside Higher Ed December 5, 2012
  4. Schneider, Carol Geary. 2012. “Is It Finally Time to Kill the Credit Hour?Liberal Education Fall 2012, Vol. 98, No. 4
  5. Tsigelny, Igor F. 2011. “Educational Credits in the USA and Credit Transfer from the UK and European Union.” Analytical Reports in International Education Vol. 4. No. 1, November 2011, pp. 87-93
  6. WES staff members. 1999. Working with ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) 
  7. Young, Jeffrey R. 2012. “‘Badges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: