The credit hour, sometimes also referred to as the Carnegie Unit, has since the early 20th Century been the commonly accepted measure of the quantity of college education someone has completed.

Credit hours have played a surprising number of roles over the last century. They were originally designed to standardize measures of learning in secondary school as part of the college admissions process. Then they became a means to calculate professors’ workload to determine pension eligibility. More recently, we have used credit hours to help determine the amount of tuition students should pay and how much financial aid they can receive.

But the credit hour is only what the term implies—a measure of time spent in class, not learning.

Higher education today is not what it was when the credit hour was created. Back then, college was only for elite students who had money.  Today, many students enroll in college classes at all different points in their lives for a wide variety of purposes—to earn a promotion or credential, gain skills to start a new career, build on college credits they earned during military service, or finish a few credits they need to complete a degree that was interrupted earlier in their lives.

Has the Credit Hour Outlived its Usefulness?

By 2020, adult students, typically defined as those who are 25 years and older, will account for 43 percent all postsecondary students, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Today’s adult learner students have busy lives outside of school. Many are working full-time and have children to look after. They want flexibility, convenience, and affordability. They want transparency, so they can communicate clearly to employers the skills and knowledge they have gained. They also want what they have learned outside of formal education—in the workplace, in the military, and in life—to be recognized, which is the impetus behind our own Vets to BSN program that allows corpsmen with experience in the military to apply that knowledge toward a degree.

Many (including the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which created the Carnegie Unit, and its cousin, the credit hour) are questioning whether the credit hour has outlived its usefulness. As an alternative, National University and others are exploring competency-based approaches, which is one piece of a comprehensive research-based initiative we refer to as Precision Education that aims to redesign the higher education experience. As part of this process, which will include a period of testing and assessment prior to implementation, National University is “unbundling” courses into micro-competencies and matching tools and supports to students’ needs. Eventually, we think these Precision Education approaches will allow students to move through classes at their own pace, not at the pace dictated by a university.

New Approaches to Learning: Units Rather Than Time

But that’s only a start. Classes, themselves, could be broken down into units, each the equivalent of a micro-credential. The credentials earned in class can be compiled along with those earned outside of credit-bearing courses, such as through professional development workshops or other learning experiences, into a nanodegree, which is also called a micro-badge. This, too, is another possibility being explored through the Precision Education initiative.

It will be interesting to see if these smaller units of credit help students get jobs and get better at what they do. Eventually, experts say, the credit hour could become a relic of the past, replaced by measures of learning, instead of measures of time.

Blog post written by Dr. David Andrews, President of National University. Precision Education at National University is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals.

Learn more about the initiative and the Precision Institute at National University: