The Incredible Shrinking Carnegie Unit

The Carnegie Unit (CU) is shrinking at an alarming rate at most institutions of higher learning in Connecticut. It has all but evaporated at some. There are evidences of the phenomenon in our secondary schools. Connecticut is not alone in this, but I live here, and as a professional educator and tax payer, would like to see the Board give our citizenry more bang for their tuition bucks.

The CU, originated in 1906, was intended as a standard measure of achievement for the awarding of high school diplomas and in short order, college degrees. It is variously referred to as a student hour, lecture hour or credit hour. Nowadays it is reckoned at the atomic level in terms of contact hours per course credit. In familiar terms, a graduating senior will have taken 120 “credits” in four years, at 3-credits per course, amounting to 40 courses for the typical baccalaureate. The typical masters degree equivocates to roughly 30 credits of work.

Herein lies the problem. Note that in the vernacular, we have divorced the terms “credit” and “hour.” Moreover, an hour, when measured (as in psychiatry) is a “50-minute” hour. The 10 minutes required to walk between classes apparently accounts for the disparity. In classes that meet in durations exceeding an hour, there are no discounts for 5 to 10 minute “bathroom” breaks, or in day-long courses (typical of weekend programs for working adults)—hour-long recesses for lunch. There is an implicit understanding among students and professors that a break may be excluded but only as a “trade” for leaving early. There is much consternation if this protocol is not respected. According to college lore, students may even self-dismiss if a professor is 20 minutes late for class. Transgressions of this sort are not tabulated in the accounting of credit hours in a manner Frederick Taylor would’ve seen fit.

Given that an “hour” is not an hour in the traditional sense, it seemed natural to examine whether the notion of a “credit” had similarly eroded. So, my students and I conducted a simple X-Y-Z study, looking at private, public and online universities in Connecticut and “doing the math” to determine if there’s a correlation between total meeting times as posted in the schedule and credit hours as advertised in the catalog. Our focus was on graduate schools of education, as these are both a lens on the state of collegiate education, and their effect at K-12 levels is direct. Our standards were 30 hours per course, with two hourly meetings per week over a 15 week semester. As a basis for comparison, the same subject domain was targeted at each institution. We did not account for stated or implied homework-time commitments.

It turns out the variance of times, assuming equivocation of credit-hours, was so huge as to preclude application of descriptive or inferential metrics. Statisticians would argue that a sampling of n=3 is too small a subset to be of significance. Our contention is that even a single transgression is one to many.

Here’s the low-down, assuming that a 30-credit program, consisting of 10 courses would nominally meet 300 hours.

At Institution-X, a private university, it’s possible to earn an on-site masters degree with as little 60 hours of face-time. This is probably a conservative estimate, for remember that breaks and early dismissal are common occurrences. The CU shortage = 240 credit hours.

At Institution-Y, a respected public flag-ship, the same credential requires 160 hours. Instruction in said program is carried out in two week installments over two summers (80 hours each), with project work over the intervening year. Actual contact time rounds to 137 hours, given a 1 hour break for lunch and twenty 10-minute breaks (two per day) over the two summer sessions, based on input from actual program participants. CU shortage = 163 hours.

At Institution-Z, a noted “blended” university, the online program equivalent requires 8 weeks of participation, distributed over 11 courses. Being entirely asynchronous, it is impossible to calculate contact time in terms of “hours.” CU shortage? Indeterminate.

Institution-Z is fast becoming the norm, for in Connecticut as elsewhere, according to our very-own CTDLC, more students take more courses online than via traditional face-to-face, ground-based delivery.

A disturbing side note is that at some institutions, faculty compensation is not commensurate with load hours per course. There are cases where 2-credit courses are compensated at a 3-credit rate, purely for accounting and reimbursement purposes. Requiring students to take some courses at the discounted credit rate increases the number of courses they have to take and boosts revenue.

In commenting on the irony of all this to a colleague, he remarked, “It’s the Five Easy Pieces of Education, Jerry. (1) The students pay tuition. (2) We pretend to teach, (3) They pretend to learn, (4) Nothing is ever said, (5) Everyone is happy.”

If colleges are thought of as banks, then the credits students accrue towards graduation ought to be based on a coherent currency standard. It is clear that the notion of credit-hours is fast becoming obsolete, as measured by physical presence. A metric that makes more sense and that seems to be the trend in online delivery is participatory engagement.

Arguments can be made that a new gold standard, entailing demonstrable mastery of standards-aligned content, ought to be measured by assessments of deliverables. The latter, sometimes referred to as “artifacts of the learning process” are themselves becoming digital, and in that sense, less tangible. Synchronous participation via social networking technologies such as video chat or tweets, in terms of their volume and cogency might also weigh in the new metric. Being merely physically present seems vacuous.

May I suggest a task force to address these issues?

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