Is Time Running Out for Higher Education’s Credit Hour Model?

In this three-part series, Raymond Todd Blackwood, Campus Management’s Vice President of Product Management, explores the demand for new ways of assessing and awarding credit in higher education.

Over a century ago, if a student sat through enough lectures for a prescribed amount of time, took good notes, passed their exams, and kept their inkwells full, they received credit for that course. Except for the inkwell, not much has changed in terms of how we award credit and track student progress. The Carnegie Unit remains the gold standard in the United States, from K-12 to higher education. Most colleges and universities students still need to accrue 120 credit ‘hours’ to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Don’t get me wrong. This same system has produced a higher education landscape in this country that attracts students from around the world and continues to transform communities, nations, and lives. But unlike a century ago, more kinds of students look to higher education as a path to better lives, from first generation students to adult learners seeking new skills. Over the past two decades, leveraging modern technology, higher education has been able to open its doors to more kinds of students, providing online programs and flexible terms.

Today, we are at another major crossroads in higher education. Students are graduating with massive amounts of debt, with the effect being felt across the public and private higher education landscape. At the same time, graduating students are coming up short in the specific knowledge and skills employers are seeking in job candidates.

Once again though, innovative thinking and technology may provide a solution. Are there alternative ways for students to demonstrate mastery and efficiency in a particular field of study?  Is there a better way to align programs and student skills with the needs of the workforce, accelerate formal recognition, and reduce the cost of higher ed in the process?

Digital Badges/ Micro-Credentials
Reminiscent of the merit badges kids receive from Scouting, digital badges or micro-credentials are a way to recognize the knowledge and mastery of discrete skills that students have developed outside the traditional classroom—through volunteering and internships, for example. Along with sending their transcripts and resumes to prospective employers, students can include a digital badge, an icon that indicates and recognizes professional expertise and experience in subsets of skills across industries and disciplines (e.g., technology, business, health care). Digital micro-credentials can also help in the admissions selection process, providing a more complete picture of students’ experiences inside and outside the classroom.

Skills Bootcamps
Mostly focused on technology skills such as software coding, skills bootcamps are short-term, immersive training programs that typically run from 12 to 15 weeks in length. Despite the high-profile closings of a few bootcamp operators recently, the model is consolidating and gaining traction in the traditional higher ed space as a way to supplement existing degree programs and equip students with the critical skills sought by employers. 

Competency-Based Education
Once referred to as direct assessment, the concept of awarding credit based on independent learning and acquiring skills is not a new concept to higher education. We have seen several CBE programs emerge in recent years as a way to recognize and award credit for students’ knowledge and skills, improve outcomes, and reduce the cost of higher education.

The challenge today is how to build these skills-based programs to nationwide standards. Will a student be able to transfer these credits from one institution to another? Will employers recognize them? And finally, how do you execute these programs on a legacy student information system that may be tied to the past?

I’ll explore these questions and more in the next two articles, looking at how some institutions are offering these alternative programs.

Read Part 2

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