The credit hour is currently the basic unit of measurement for student progress in higher education in the United States. The credit hour informs aspects of administration of higher-education institutions throughout the United States, including establishing teaching loads and graduation requirements, and is the basic structural unit of most college-level courses as well as the basis for federal student aid.
Despite this fact, the term was formally undefined until 2010 when the U.S. Department of Education reluctantly defined a credit hour as the amount of work associated with intended learning outcomes that can be verified with evidence of student achievement.
There is growing dissatisfaction with credit hours, however, because they measure time instead of educational attainment and fail to provide any useful understanding of what students actually learned. This criticism is heard most loudly in the debate around credit transfers from one institution to another. In reality, however, this distrust of credits earned elsewhere reflects the fact that it’s difficult to place accurate value on earned credits even though those hours came at a great price to the student, his or her family, and taxpayers.
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