Final Program Integrity Rules: ED Introduces Definition of Credit Hour

Final program integrity regulations were published on October 29, 2010, based on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) published on June 18, 2010. This article is part of a series on final program integrity regulations. The series details the regulatory changes and additional information contained in the preamble to the final rules in response to comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Most provisions are effective July 1, 2011 (verification being the notable exception, with an effective date of July 1, 2012). Unlike previous final rule packages in recent years, early implementation at an institution’s option has not been approved for any provision. 

Effective July 1, 2011, all institutions will need to ensure that they award Title IV funds based on an enrollment status that reflects a new definition of 'credit hour.' The definition does not affect an institution's academic policies, but may result in different credit hour values for a course for academic versus financial aid purposes.

In a related review of existing policies concerning credit hour values, ED has also revised:

  • Evaluation of credit hour values performed by accrediting agencies
  • Clock-to-credit hour conversion rules
  • Required measurement of programs in clock hours for Title IV purposes

Definition of Credit Hour (600.2)

The new regulations define a credit hour as "an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than --

"(1) One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or

"(2) At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours."

This definition must be used for Title IV purposes, such as determining institutional eligibility, program eligibility, and student enrollment status and eligibility. In regulations related to all three of these areas, the number of credit hours has a central function. Institutional eligibility is defined in part by the length of the institution's programs, generally expressed in terms of academic years; one of the components of the academic year definition is credit hours. Program eligibility likewise depends on length, either in term of academic years or directly in terms of credit hours. Enrollment status is the most obvious expression of credit hour values.

The Department of Education (ED) states in the preamble to the new rule that it believes the definition to be consistent with general practice, and that many institutions "are already following the definition of a credit hour or a reasonably comparable standard that would require minimal or no adjustment for purposes of participating in Federal programs."

The definition seeks to quantify academic activity for purposes of determining Federal funding. It is not intended to limit or prescribe how institutions assign credits to their courses for academic or other purposes apart from Federal programs. An institution can continue to use its current credit assignment practices for academic purposes, but may have to use a different measure to determine credit hours for Federal purposes.

According to guidance provided in the preamble to the final rule, institutions will have to "demonstrate that the credit hours awarded for the amount of academic work necessary for Federal program purposes approximates the amount of work defined in paragraph (1) of the definition. ..." ED notes that the definition sets a minimum standard which institutions may exceed. Further, ED does "not want to limit the interpretation of class time only to direct instruction in order to take into consideration other in-class activities such as examinations."

The definition is intended to allow institutions --to use their discretion to determine the in-class and out-of-class components for laboratory work to the extent the credit awarded reasonably approximates the requirements of paragraph (1) of the credit-hour definition. ..." One credit hour of lab work, for example, need not consist of one hour in the lab plus two hours of out-of-class work related to the laboratory.

Institutions must "determine the academic activity that approximates the amount of work defined in paragraph (1) based on institutionally established learning outcomes and verifiable student achievement. The definition allows institutions that have alternative delivery methods, measurements of student work, or academic calendars to determine intended learning outcomes and verify evidence of student achievement."

ED declined a request to define "one hour" more specifically as either 50 minutes or one clock hour, stating that the primary purpose of the credit hour definition is to "provide institutions with a baseline, not an absolute value, for determining reasonable equivalencies or approximations for the amount of academic activity defined in the paragraph."

Role of Accrediting Agencies [602.24(f) & 603.24(c)]

The regulations governing ED's recognition of accrediting agencies for the purpose of establishing institutional eligibility have been revised to require agencies to "conduct an effective review and evaluation of the reliability and accuracy of the institution's assignment of credit hours." Agencies may satisfy this requirement by reviewing an institution's policies and procedures for assigning credit hours (as defined in 600.2), and its adherence to those policies and procedures, and then making "a reasonable determination of whether the institution's assignment of credit hours conforms to commonly accepted practice in higher education."

Accrediting agencies are not thereby required to mandate specific policies for institutions with regard to assigning credit hours to programs and coursework, according to ED's discussion in the preamble. ED also notes that the credit hour definition does not force accrediting agencies to impose homework requirements on vocational institutions.

Accrediting agencies must take appropriate action if an institution is out of compliance with the credit hour definition. If an agency finds systemic noncompliance with the its policies or significant noncompliance regarding one or more programs at the institution, the agency must promptly notify ED. "Systemic noncompliance" refers to an institutional process for awarding credits that is fundamentally flawed with regard to assigning credit hours in accordance with the credit hour definition in 600.2 and accrediting agencies policies. "Significant noncompliance" refers to institutional assignment of credit hours to individual courses or programs that are particularly egregious.

These same requirements apply to state agencies that are recognized to approve postsecondary vocational institutions in lieu of accreditation.

The reviews and evaluations required by the regulations occur for initial accreditation or preaccreditation or renewal of accreditation. During the interim period between the effective date of the regulations and an agency's review of institutional compliance with the new credit-hour definition, an institution is responsible and accountable for ensuring that its credit hour assignments conform to the definition and that its processes are in accord with its designated accrediting agency's (or recognized State agency's) requirements.

Clock to Credit Hour Conversion [668.8(k)(1) & (l)]

Clock to credit hour conversion is used to determine whether certain programs meet the length criterion for program eligibility; the resultant credit hour values must be used in awarding Title IV aid. One-year training programs at public or private nonprofit institutions as well as non-degree programs at proprietary schools and postsecondary vocational institutions are subject to the conversion formula, unless they are exempted. Currently, the exemption requires that each course within the program be acceptable for full credit toward that institution's degree, if the degree requires at least two academic years of study. The final rule adds one other caveat: that the institution demonstrates that students enroll in, and graduate from, the degree program used for the exemption.

Programs that are subject to the clock-to-credit-hour conversion are exempted from using the credit-hour definition in 600.2.

The actual conversion formula has been revised. There will be two sets of conversion parameters, depending on whether additional student work outside of class is required. Generally, effective July 1, 2011, the new conversion parameters specify that:

  • A semester hour must include at least 37.5 clock hours of instruction;
  • A trimester hour must include at least 37.5 clock hours of instruction; and
  • A quarter hour must include at least 25 clock hours of instruction.

The regulations provide an exception to this minimum standard, allowing a lesser rate of conversion based on additional student work outside of class. To use the exception, the institution's student work outside of class combined with the clock hours of instruction must meet or exceed the numeric requirements of the standard conversion minimums listed above. If that condition is met, for courses with work outside of class, the conversion parameters are the same as the current regulation:

  • A semester hour must include at least 30 clock hours of instruction;
  • A trimester hour must include at least 30 clock hours of instruction; and
  • A quarter hour must include at least 20 hours of instruction.

Required Measurement in Clock Hours [668.8(k)(2)]

The final rule also establishes conditions under which a program must be measured in clock hours for Title IV purposes. These conditions are:

  • A program is required to measure student progress in clock hours when receiving Federal or State approval or licensure to offer the program
  • A program is required to measure student progress in clock hours when completing clock hours is a requirement for graduates to apply for licensure or the authorization to practice the occupation that the student is intending to pursue;
  • The credit hours awarded for the program are not in compliance with the new definition of a credit hour 600.2; or
  • The institution does not actually provide the clock hours that are the basis for the credit hours awarded for the program or each course in the program but requires attendance in those clock hours (except for allowable excused absences).

The first two bullets above do not, however, apply if there is a State or Federal approval or licensure requirement that a limited component of the program must include a practicum, internship, or clinical experience that must include a minimum number of clock hours.

In the preamble to the final rule, ED expresses its belief that "any requirement for a program to be measured in clock hours to receive Federal or State approval or licensure, and any requirement for a graduate to complete clock hours to apply for licensure or authorization to practice an occupation demonstrates that a program is fundamentally a clock-hour program, regardless of whether the program has received Federal, State, or accrediting approval to offer the program in credit hours. ... This outcome is not changed for such a program when an institution's State licensing board or accrediting agency also allows the institution to award a credential based upon credit hours, or when a State licensing board may require that a program be measured in clock hours but the program is approved by the institution's accrediting agency in credit hours."

ED goes on state that nothing prevents a program that must be considered a clock-hour program for Title IV purposes from also being offered in credit hours for academic or other purposes.

Effective Date

As noted above, generally the effective date of these provisions is July 1, 2011. An institution must implement the definition of a credit hour regardless of whether its accrediting agency has issued guidance on the implementation of 602.24(f). While an accrediting agency is required to implement § 602.24(f) effective July 1, 2011, ED will review on a case-by-case basis, based on an adequate justification as determined by ED, any reasonable request from an accrediting agency for a delayed implementation date.

However, for students enrolled in programs subject to the clock-to-credit hour conversion provisions as of July 1, 2011, an institution may choose to apply the current conversion regulations until these students complete the program. For students who enroll or reenroll on or after July 1, 2011, in affected programs, institutions must determine Title IV eligibility using the new final regulations.


Publication Date: 11/8/2010

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