Do Students Get Hurt by Fuzzy Credits?

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Washington – With $100 billion in federal student loans and grants at stake, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said Thursday that higher education accreditation systems must be scrutinized in light of profit-making institutions which could inflate credit hours to pad their bottom lines.

Miller grilled witnesses from independent agencies that accredit not only traditional institutions of higher learning, but also trade schools and on-line educational institutions.

“As the cost of higher education and, subsequently, the federal investment in student aid rise, and more students go into debt to finance their educations, it is critical that we ask what students and the taxpayers, as federal investors, are paying for,” Miller said.

At issue are new rules that the Department of Education is issuing regarding what constitutes a credit-hour and how to evaluate non-traditional learning:  either by the traditional credit-hour criteria or other measures, such as graduation rates, success at getting a job after graduation, or ability to pass licensing requirements. Colleges and independent accreditation agencies balk at the government setting standards for credit-hours, preferring to let the independent accreditation system evaluate the institutions.

Loans and grants have been based on how many credit-hours a student signs up for. The definition of a credit-hour has been based on the “Carnegie system,” which roughly determines that one hour in a classroom is worth two hours of homework or outside study – thus creating a traditional three-credit-hour course.

But that system does not apply to on-line classes, or even to many trade schools, where the learning is mostly hands-on with little or no outside homework.

Accrediting agencies are struggling to keep up with the new forms of learning. A report this spring by the Education Department’s Inspector General found that some accreditation agencies did not have established definitions of what constitutes a “credit-hour.”

 

The report focused on one case, in which an accreditation agency called the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association accredited American International University (AIU), an on-line college, despite finding serious discrepancies in the number of credit-hours earned in a single course. AIU was granting nine credit hours for a five-week course, which the agency said was impossible to attain. But AIU was allowed to continue to teach students during a period of time during which it eventually halved the number of credit hours earned in the time period.

Miller and others on the panel took Higher Learning Commission President Silvia Manning to task over her agency’s handling of AIU, because, as Miller put it, the question is worth so much money. The federal government gives out grants at the rate of $613 a credit hour.

 “As a student, when I sign up for a course at nine credits, that’s $5,517 in grants. If that course is worth three credits, that’s $1,839,” he said. “All of a sudden, that unit becomes very important because we are dealing with education for profit, and if that extra unit is repeated 10,000 times, that’s a lot of money.”

“This question of how you assign credit units is now is partly not so much of an academic plan but also a business plan,” he said.

Manning said that the concept of credit-hours is sometimes “messy” because of such factors as determining how much time a student spends on homework. She said her agency relies on many criteria to decide on accrediting an institution, not just the credit-hour issue. In the example of AIU, she said, the institution was not criticized for the instruction itself, but for the number of credit hours it gave the courses, and was given time to make changes.

Members of the panel did not seem to be impressed. Rep. Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.), former chancellor of Southampton University on Long Island, questioned Manning’s reluctance to have a federal standard for what constitutes a “credit hour.”

“If in fact this is messy and complex, wouldn’t we deal with some of the messiness and complexity if we had a clear minimum definition?”  he said.

Manning then said it wouldn’t be so bad to have a definition, but that it might cost more to determine if schools met that definition. Bishop finally got her to agree that the cost of maintaining a minimum definition of what constitutes a credit hour would be no more than the cost of demonstrating student outcomes.