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The Term “Credit Hour” Corrupted In The Early Twentieth Century

July 29, 2014 Joe Schmoke

I am seeing more and more articles, conferences and how-to seminars that are centered around competency based education.  Interestingly – and hopefully in my opinion – a much broader, perhaps more enlightened group of higher-ed professionals are opening their minds to the concept of measuring gained knowledge based on applied learning rather than “time-in-a-seat” whether it be in a classroom or online at a dining room table.


Why this is happening now, I think, is based on common sense.  The old standard of measuring the absorption of knowledge – I should say presumed absorption of knowledge – by adding up credit hours earned by a student is finally being reevaluated by change-averse administrators and trustees.  Even those most resistant to change have to eventually look at, if not acknowledge, the need to periodically review how things are done.  After all, we no longer study by candlelight and communicate only by written letter delivered by Pony Express.  Most of us, anyway.


It helps if we examine a narrow era in the evolution of higher education.  In the nineteenth century only the privileged attended college.  Professors were not paid very well, resulting in few entering or staying in the profession.  Andrew Carnegie, who had both the interest in changing things and the wherewithal to do so, became a huge supporter of education for the common man.  Carnegie felt an educated populace would benefit the country as a whole.  Since lecturers and professors up until that time had no job security Carnegie devised a new pension scheme that allowed professors to accumulate credit towards a pension.  To create an accounting medium to allow the teachers to accrue credits towards a pension he adopted the term “credit hour.”  Thus the professors obtained job security of a sorts (although tempted, I won’t talk about tenure here) and a term was born…one that became corrupted in the early twentieth century.


About the time the processes of educating the masses became industrialized, based on the production line idea of everything moving along nicely at a specified pace, an administrator with influence in higher education sponsored a new concept: applying the term “credit hour” to the time a student was expected spend in order to become proficient in a subject.  I’m not sure how that made sense to anyone, but it stuck.  And now most colleges and universities are stuck too – with terminology that is antiquated at best.


Thinking adults, even those in higher education, are at the early stages of finally accepting that the way learning is measured should not be by adding up credit hours!