By Curtis Johnson, April guest blogger
Is it time to retire the credit system? Sounds radical, I know. But last December the Carnegie Foundation, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, said it would review the relevance of the “Carnegie” credit hour, since 1906 the primary metric of student progress toward a college degree.
Andrew Carnegie could not have imagined in 1906 that his device for legitimating faculty-teaching responsibility as the first teacher pension system was introduced would morph into a standard scoring system for students. But it did. And now a century later, Carnegie managing partner Thomas Toch says it “looks increasingly antiquated.”
For starters, a transcript of recorded credits doesn’t tell employers anything about a graduate except general endurance toward a degree. It says nothing about what graduates have actually learned and what they can do in a variety of real-world situations.
But, you say, if students earned the credits, isn’t that sufficient evidence of learning? No, not after a decade of employers’ complaining that even after their human resources departments screen to interview only college graduates, they too often find that applicants are not well enough educated for them to hire. They may have passed tests measuring memory of facts and principles, but they come up clueless about solving real problems, doing critical analyses, not to mention the skills involved in working with others. Some of them still start sentences with “Me and….” This gap makes employers crazy. And it deepens cynicism about the whole higher education system.
What’s worse is the suspicion that many students simply play the credit game — studying just enough to get grades sufficient to earning a credit and collecting enough credits to grab the degree. Studies showing the drop-off in study time between the freshman and sophomore year would seem to support the suspicion.
Let’s hope Carnegie turns a bright light on a potential game-changer movement — a shift toward documenting actual proficiencies, accumulated in a permanent portfolio.
Educators have long talked about assessing competencies. Indeed, one of the institutions in the MnSCU system — Metropolitan State University — was founded on this principle. But most institutions wading into these waters did so by layering a proficiency protocol on top of the grades-and-credit system, producing more work for faculty and administrators. Seen by many as a fad anyway, the approach faded in most institutions.
But now a shift to documenting competencies is gaining momentum as a way to restore the intellectual integrity of the whole system and build new bridges between colleges and the expectations of students and employers.
With the advent of inexpensive tablet technology and rapidly emerging competitive software systems, we are fast entering a no-excuses zone for making this shift. Minnesota’s even home to one of the start-up technology firms (e-Lumen) offering proficiency software and technical assistance for implementation.
Minnesota also has an embryonic system for students to compile (and control) their own portfolios of what they have learned and can do. Called “e-folios” and originating with work at Century College a few years back, this movement is now spreading.
Nationally, accreditation agencies have for years now called for this shift, especially agencies in the western half of the U.S. And prospects for scaling are propelled by the interest of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in marketing the proficiency model all over the country. Former Carleton College vice president Dan Sullivan, now the recently retired president of St. Lawrence University in New York, has been commissioned by the AAC&U to develop a network of institutions willing to commit to this new model. Sullivan thinks Minnesota could be a model laboratory, a first mover; he reports that he’s found at least 10 Minnesota institutions — public and private — willing to make this commitment. Even more Minnesota institutions have said they are “interested and watching.”
See an interview with Curtis Johnson about higher education, produced by Twin Cities Public Television.