Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?


Published: December 9, 2012

LAST month The Chronicle of Higher Education published a damning investigation of college athletes across the nation who were maintaining their eligibility by taking cheap, easy online courses from an obscure junior college.

In just 10 days, academically deficient players could earn three credits and an easy “A” from Western Oklahoma State College for courses like “Microcomputer Applications” (opening folders in Windows) or “Nutrition” (stating whether or not the students used vitamins). The Chronicle quoted one Big Ten academic adviser as saying, “You jump online, finish in a week and half, get your grade posted, and you’re bowl-eligible.”

On the face of it, this is another sad but familiar story of the big-money intercollegiate-athletics complex corrupting the ivory tower. But it also reveals a larger, more pervasive problem: there are no meaningful standards of academic quality in higher education. And the more colleges and universities move their courses online, the more severe the problem gets.

Much attention has been paid to for-profit colleges that offer degrees online while exploiting federal student-loan programs and saddling ill-prepared students with debt. But nearly all of the institutions caught up in the 10-day credit dodge exposed by The Chronicle were public, nonprofit institutions. And both the credit-givers, like Western Oklahoma, and the sports machines at the other end of the transaction, like Florida State University, were doing nothing illegal.

A main reason the scandal persists is that our system is built around the strange idea of the “credit hour,” a unit of academic time that does little to measure student learning. The credit hour originated around the turn of the 20th century, when the industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie moved to create a pension system for college professors. (It’s now known as TIAA-CREF.) Pensions were reserved for professors who worked full time, which ended up being defined as a minimum of 12 hours of classroom teaching per week in a standard 15-week semester.

After World War II, higher education began a huge expansion, driven by the G.I. Bill, a changing economy and a booming middle class. It needed a way to count and manage millions of new students. Credit hours were easy to record, and already in place. That’s why today, credit hours determine eligibility for financial aid and graduation (you generally need 120 for a bachelor’s degree).

But colleges were left to judge the quality of credit hours by affixing grades to courses, and the quality of colleges themselves would be judged by — well, there was the rub. Colleges didn’t want to be judged by anyone other than themselves, and remarkably, the government went along with it. Yes, colleges are held accountable by nonprofit accrediting organizations — but those are, in turn, run by other colleges. When asked, Western Oklahoma’s accreditor said it had never heard of the school’s three-credits-in-10-days scheme and would look into it. But the next scheduled accreditation review isn’t until 2017.

The lack of meaningful academic standards in higher education drags down the entire system. Grade inflation, even (or especially) at the most elite institutions, is rampant. A landmark book published last year, “Academically Adrift,” found that many students at traditional colleges showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, and spent their time socializing, working or wasting time instead of studying. (And that’s not even considering the problem of low graduation rates.)

The rapid migration of higher education online exacerbates these problems. The notion of recording academic progress by counting the number of hours students spend sitting in a classroom is nonsensical when there is no actual classroom. Perhaps students themselves will decide what constitutes quality, as they choose among the so-called “massive online open courses” being offered free by brand-name universities including Harvard, M.I.T. and Stanford. I suspect those courses that will be most valued will be those where students actually learn.

But the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do. There are many routes to doing this. In the arts and sciences, scholarly associations could define and update what it means to be proficient in a field. So could professional organizations and employers in vocational and technical fields.

Ending the antiquated credit hour would not only avert abuses involving college sports, but also prevent students of all kinds from taking the path of least resistance toward degrees that may be ultimately worthless.

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at the New America Foundation.