Credit Definition and Low Contact Schools

The Chronicle and other similar organizations have written repeatedly over the last year about the Dept. of Education’s new regulations requiring schools to define their credit hour.  The concern here seems to be about the credibility of online and/or for-profit schools and the student aid dollars that they attract.  But complaints about the regulations come from the broad range of college institutions.  Why do traditional colleges object?  One might think they would welcome less competition.  They say the regulations will add to their administration costs, but I think the concern is about the credit definition itself.  The Carnegie definition which is thought of as the standard is not so standard among many of our most elite schools and many colleges that don’t meet that standard don’t want to be held accountable.  According to Carnegie, students are supposed to have one hour of class for each credit.  Even if an hour only has 50 minutes to allow for passing time between classes, many schools haven’t met this standard for decades.

This summer I decided that I would spend some time to see how much contact time our highest ranked schools have with their students.  I took the US News top 125 liberal arts schools and visited all their webs sites to survey their schedule of classes and graduation requirements.  I attach tables  ( that group the schools according to how much they seem to require of their students and I give a verbal summary in what follows.  I recognize that contact time guarantees nothing about the quality of a course, but I would also suggest that schools that economize on teaching time have a high standard to meet for work outside of class.  It is widely recognized that NSSE data show that students aren’t even close to the work outside of class that the Carnegie standard requires and Arum and Roksa have data that shows even less study.  Given this, it is hard to believe that schools that have less contact time demand work outside of class to make up for the reduced class time.  They put the burden of proof on themselves.  They need to show that their students study more outside of class than similarly ranked schools with more contact time.  I doubt that they can.  It seems more likely that these schools want their faculty to do more research and their students to have an easier path through school.

So how little do the low contact schools require of their students?  There are 25 schools ranked from 3 to 93 that require 150 minutes a week of class for most of their courses and only 32 courses to graduate.  Ten of them don’t even have 14 weeks of class. Generally labs don’t get extra credit and often languages require more class time.  Sometimes there are a few classes that meet longer.  I wonder why that is?  These faculty must feel they can’t teach their course with less time.  What does that say about all the other courses?  My view is that we can make a course as tough as we see fit.  The low contact faculty argue that their courses are tough; that the students just do more independent work outside of class.  But the data I’ve mentioned above say there’s not much going on outside of class.  It seems to me that these schools are giving 4 credits for 3 credits courses.  Faculty don’t have to teach or grade as much and students don’t have to work as much.  That’s good for graduation rates, school ratings and bottom lines.

There are 29 schools that look very good as far as contact hours go, ranked from 14 to 122.  I wonder where the conviction comes from to resist the rewards that the low contact schools enjoy. This group certainly includes some highly ranked schools.   Washington and Lee ( ranked 14) still has the traditional 3 credit system and even longer classes than usual and 14 weeks of class.  They have 3 55 or 2 85 minute classes.  Harvey Mudd (18) also still has the 3 credit system and three 50 minute classes per course and 14 weeks of class.  You can look at the list and see that there are many highly ranked schools with contact time like this.

At the time this is written, colleges are still required to define their credits, although attempts have been made to change this at the house committee level. I understand that the motivation behind the credit definition requirement comes from concern about online and/or for-profit courses.  But it would be good if an unintended result was that our traditional colleges moved back toward a work ethic devised over a hundred years ago.  We can do that with contact time easily enough.  Getting students to study as much as they should outside of class will be tougher.  The answer there is to return to tougher grading.  But that’s another topic that few in higher education want to talk about. 

See also: Four Day Schools