Needed: A Better Measure of College Learning Than “Seat Time”


Two years ago the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced that it was going to “rethink” the credit hour as the benchmark for learning in higher education and other levels of schooling. Such a rethink has been sorely needed. The number of hours a student spends dozing in a classroom or in the back row catching up with his pals on Facebook is hardly a good measure of learning. To be sure, research does indicate that cutting class is associated with bad learning habits and behaviors that result in poor grades. But “seat time” is a poor indicator of what a student actually knows.

So it was disappointing last week when Carnegie’s long-awaited report on its rethink finally came out. The Foundation agreed with most of the criticisms of the credit hour, calling it “a crude proxy” for learning. Other problems recognized in the report are that tying federal aid to credit hours undertaken is an inefficient way to link financial support with student progress. Moreover, with the growth of online learning, which allows students to learn at their own pace, seat time is not a meaningful measure of progress.

But the Foundation got cold feet about replacing the credit hour with another standard, such as one based more directly on measures of student competency in subjects. Hardly an example of Profiles in Courage, Carnegie fell back on the claim that developing the standards, assessments and accountability systems would be “difficult work, especially in the field of higher education, where educational aims are highly varied and faculty autonomy is deeply engrained.” Once again, it seems, the desire of many faculty to be paid according to time on the job rather than knowledge imparted won the day.

To be fair, it is challenging to develop a broadly usable and transferable system to measure student knowledge. But many had hoped that Carnegie would take a bolder line on moving from credit hours to competency measures.

Fortunately, despite Carnegie’s hesitation there are other developments indicating that the credit hour’s days may be numbered. Some institutions, such as Western Governors University, have for several years offered degree programs based on competency measures. And in a promising move, the U.S. Department of education recently announced that it will allow 40 colleges to experiment with competency-based education, granting them a waiver from the financial aid rules that help to prop up the credit hour system.

The Department’s announcement is good news. It’s regrettable that Carnegie did not give more encouragement to ending seat time.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on See Thru EDU, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.