Is Time Up for the Credit Hour?

Written by: Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti
Published On: October 24, 2014

How do we know if a student has learned enough to attain a degree or credential?  Likely, the answer is currently phrased in the form of credit hours:  64 semester hours to earn an associate’s degree, 128 semester hours to earn a bachelor’s degree, and so on.  But the credit hour, the most widely-used currency of determining work put in toward a degree, was never intended to measure student learning at all.

In a paper for the New America Foundation and Education Sector, “Cracking the Credit Hour,” Amy Laitinen explains the history of the credit hour as a tool not for measuring learning but for awarding pensions.  It began as a way to compare high school work, but quickly migrated to colleges through Andrew Carnegie’s work as a trustee of Cornell University.

In the late 1800s, the National Education Association endorsed the concept of a ‘standard unit’ of time that students spent on a subject as an easy-to-compare measure.  But the idea of standard time units didn’t stick until later, when Andrew Carnegie set out to fix a problem that had nothing to do with high school courses:  the lack of pensions for college professors.

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