Re-imagining the College Degree

What is the definition of a bachelor’s degree? At least in the United States, you receive a bachelor’s degree by completing 120 credit units with a passing grade point average.

So what is the definition of a credit unit? One credit unit equals one hour each week in a room with an instructor, for a total of 15 weeks (corresponding to one semester). Most university classes are three credits, which means you spend three hours each week–“contact hours”–in a room with the instructor. The usual expectation is that for each contact hour, a student will also spend two hours of work outside of class time–reading and studying or working on a project or assignment.

To get 120 units in four years–eight semesters–you need 15 credits each semester. (Or ten credits a quarter, if your school year has three quarters, like the University of Chicago.) With two hours of out-of-class time for each of those contact hours, a full-time student should be spending 45 hours each week, which roughly corresponds to a full-time job, so that seems about right.

But why should this be the definition of a college degree? The 120 credit unit rule is an “input based” definition, meaning it’s a measure of how much input (instructor contact hours) students are getting. Contrast this with an “outcome based” definition, which would define a college degree in terms of what the student had learned and achieved. Let’s say we had a college exit exam–something like the high-school exit exams that some states administer, like the New York State Regents Exam. If you pass the exam, you get a college degree–regardless of where and how you acquired the skill and information necessary to pass the exam.

This alternative is being seriously proposed by some influential people and organizations, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.* A new SAT-like assessment, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment or the CLA + for short, is “the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated” (according to the WSJ). The group behind the test is the Council for Aid to Education, a New-York based nonprofit that was once part of Rand Corporation. Anyone can take the test for $35 whether or not you have ever set foot in a classroom. However, unlike most college degrees–where your major is evidence of content-area mastery–the CLA + assesses general abilities like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing, and communication.

Outcome based measures like the CLA + are, in part, a response to concerns about grade inflation and about the perception by some employers that colleges aren’t doing a good job preparing graduates for the 21st century workplace. ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college-admission exam, has its own National Career Readiness Certificate, which also measures general abilities like synthesizing and applying graphical information. A recent study found that over 25% of businesses are using the GRE–designed as a graduate school admission test–to evaluate job applicants with bachelors degrees. The MacArthur Foundation has provided funding for a series of “badges” (think of scouting’s merit badges) that each affirm mastery of a specific skill set. Last Thursday, President Obama said he wants the federal government to develop a rating system based on student outcomes.

If this ever comes to pass, it will open up opportunities for all sorts of higher education innovation. MOOCs are in the news today, but it could be another technology or learning design tomorrow. Do you think this will really threaten the traditional campus-based university?

*Douglas Belkin, “Colleges Set To Offer Exit Tests.” WSJ, Monday, August 26, 2013, pp. A1, A2.

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