Moving Away from Credit Hours in Higher Education

Transitioning from measuring student accomplishment based on credit hours toward competency-based models would be a step in the right direction to better assess a student’s skills in a particular field.

Gloria Newton Davlantis speaks with students seeking employment during a University of Illinois Job Fair in Springfield, Illinois. Higher Education based on credit hours in the United States often leave graduate unprepared for jobs. (AP/Seth Perlman)
Gloria Newton Davlantis speaks with students seeking employment during a University of Illinois Job Fair in Springfield, Illinois. Higher Education based on credit hours in the United States often leave graduate unprepared for jobs. (AP/Seth Perlman)

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.

Consider this question: Why do so many graduates of highly regarded institutions need unpaid internships in order to demonstrate jobs skills before an employer will hire them? Often it is because the accumulation of credit hours, even in an appropriate field of study from a renowned program, does not necessarily demonstrate that the graduate has acquired the knowledge and skills necessary for performance in a specific job. College transcripts show courses and grades but shed little light on what students actually know in regards to a job.

A small but growing number of educational leaders are advocating a move away from assessing student progress by credit hours and toward clear demonstrations of competence. Such a change will profoundly effect not only our higher-education system but also the entire human-capital system in the United States.

The Department of Education’s recently approved associate’s degree in business administration at Southern New Hampshire University is an example of how programs can be delivered and assessed without the credit hour.  Typically, colleges and universities offer programs based on courses that they hope will prepare students for jobs with prospective employers in various industries. Southern New Hampshire University, however, intentionally sought help from employers by asking them to specifically explain the skills they desire in new hires. The program is structured around 120 different competencies—what students know and can do—that are measured by rigorous assessments to demonstrate proficiency, rather than by three-credit courses, which is the norm in most higher-education institutions. This system helps the school ensure that every student who completes the associate’s degree program demonstrates knowledge in every area represented by the degree.

The competency-based approach ensures that employers can hire graduates of the Southern New Hampshire University associate’s degree program with confidence. To the extent that unpaid internships reflect a need for assurance that graduates can perform professionally, any graduate under this model should be able to move directly into the paid workforce. This will make it more likely that every graduate will be able to begin repaying his or her federal student-loan debt without becoming delinquent.

Another significant benefit of transitioning to competency-based models will likely be that graduates will incur less debt. Consider the fact that a student who comes into the program with some relevant academic or work experience will be able to move through the program more quickly than those without such experiences. In the Southern New Hampshire University program, dubbed College for America, a student can conceivably complete an associate’s degree in six months and for only $1,250—far below the average length and cost of even community college programs.

Additionally, employers are more likely to invest in a competency-based degree program for continuing the education of current employees. Large-scale employers such as ConAgra Foods and FedEx already accepted this model. These employers are investing significantly in the development and early implementation of the competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University and will no doubt continue to do so. Employers recognize that they will benefit from their contribution because they will be able to influence the ongoing improvement and regular updating of the program.

A 2012 study called “Education to Employment” by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, found that only 42 percent of U.S. employers believe college graduates are adequately prepared for work, while 72 percent of educational institutions think their graduates are ready for employment. Employers already think in terms of competencies, meaning these new competency-based programs offer educators and employers a common language and barometer of student achievement.

While it is unlikely that competency-based models will solve all the problems plaguing higher education today—and they certainly will not address all the inefficiencies in the current labor market—competency-based models will improve the connection between the higher-education system and employers. This will benefit current and future students, and that is what it ultimately is all about.

David Bergeron is the Vice President for Postsecondary Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


David A. Bergeron

Senior Fellow