House Education Committee Hearing Examines Using Credit Hours to Ensure Program Quality

The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing yesterday to examine how accrediting agencies assess the quality of higher education programs and discuss whether requiring a minimum definition of a credit hour and/or program length would help prevent institutions from inflating credit hours to reap more tuition and student aid dollars.

The hearing was held in response to a May report issued by the Department of Education's Inspector General (IG) that accused a regional accrediting agency of not being strict enough when assessing the amount of credit awarded in a course offered by one institution.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the committee's chairman, opened the hearing by saying that because students, parents and taxpayers continue to invest more in higher education, it is critical to know the return on that investment.

"I am particularly concerned about institutions inflating credit hours in order to garner more student aid than is justified," Miller said in his opening statement. "The IG's report found that some accrediting agencies do not have any established definitions of a credit hour, which could result in inflated credit hours and misappropriated student aid. This is alarming and could result in serious implications both for students and the future of this country."

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), the ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness, agreed that there must be transparency and accountability to ensure institutions are fulfilling their mission. But he warned that the federal government shouldn't dictate what constitutes a quality institution of higher education.

"Efforts to create a federal definition for a 'credit hour' or to establish strict federal parameters for program length have the potential to place us on a slippery slope -- one that will limit creativity and innovation in the delivery of postsecondary education," Guthrie said, referring to the proposed regulations recently released by the Department of Education.

The proposed rules would define a credit hour as "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 the same amount of actual instruction for other periods of instruction. However the Department provided an exception that it says is necessary because "other measures of educational content are being developed by institutions," and the federal government doesn't "intend to limit the methods by which an institution may measure a student's work in his or her educational activities." That exception defines credit hour as "[i]nstitutionally established reasonable equivalencies for the amount of work required in [the previous definition] for the credit hours awarded, including as represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement."

The Department of Education's Inspector General Kathleen Tighe testified that the explosion of on-line postsecondary education and accelerated programs has made the value of a credit hour increasingly important to ensure that students and taxpayers get what they are paying for.

"Once a final rule is adopted by the Department, we will be closely watching its implementation and evaluating whether the definition of a credit hour is effective in protecting students and taxpayers," Tighe said.

Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (the accrediting agency criticized in the IG report), testified that defining the credit hour, if accompanied by sufficient leeway to adapt to contemporary modes of delivery and adult learning, is something higher education can work with. However, she argued that it will not assure or improve the quality of higher education in America and it could drive up administrative costs for institutions.


Publication Date: 6/18/2010

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