Education Department Sets Credit Hour Definition

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The Education Department has issued its definition of what work must be accomplished to earn reimbursement from federal financial aid programs for a credit hour of schooling. That measure turns out to be pretty much the same as the historical Carnegie unit definition that has been used for years.

In general, the department defines a credit hour as one hour of class time and approximately two hours of home work for 15 weeks, or its equivalent, as approved by a school’s accrediting agency. This is the first time the department has issued its own definition of a credit hour.

Schools are not beholden to “seat time” and may configure units based on other measures to accommodate so-called “accelerated learning programs” and schools that don’t conform to normal quarter or semester schedules. Some for-profit schools offer 10-week courses, taken one at a time, for example.

The issue of defining a credit hour arose earlier this year after the department’s Inspector General’s office found that some for-profit schools were requiring much less work for each credit hour, but requiring many more credit hours than normal for graduation. The credit hour is the basic unit of reimbursement for federal programs, including the Pell grants to low-income students and for federal loans.

“The definition of a credit hour for Federal purposes is necessary, in part, because more than $150 billion of Federal financial aid is awarded annually based on an individual student's enrollment, as represented in number of credits,” Eduardo Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said in the letter.

During a hearing last week before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, a representative of for-profit schools and several members of the House questioned whether the federal government should be engaged in determining what constitutes a credit hour, arguing that such academic matters should be left to accrediting agencies.

“Significantly, these regulations were developed only after the department’s inspector general conducted reviews at three of the seven regional accrediting agencies and found the oversight of institutional assignment of credit hours insufficient at all three agencies,” Ochoa wrote.

The new rule, clarified in a “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the department late Friday, for the first time specifies that various accrediting agencies recognized by the department will determine what other measures may be used as the equivalent of the credit hour standard.

The credit hour standard is effective July 1, but Ochoa said a school will be considered in compliance if it is at least in the process of having its credit hour standards reviewed by the appropriate agency to be implemented.

The credit hour clarification was released one day after another “Dear Colleague” provided clarification of other of its Program Integity regulations including department’s requirement that schools be licensed or approval in any state where it has even one online student.