Higher education is built around the credit hour as a measure of learning time. We build courses and programs on the number of credit hours required, assign faculty workloads on credit hours, allocate classroom space on a time basis tied to the credit hour, and disperse over $150 billion of federal financial aid on the basis of time. The financial aid system, and thus colleges and universities, has rigid and complicated rules around the structure of academic years, terms, what constitutes full time attendance, and student measures of progress, such as full-time versus part-time and satisfactory academic progress.
Here’s the problem: time is a poor measure of learning – the credit hour is pretty good at indicating how long someone sat in a classroom, but not what they actually learned – and it often hurts the poverty stricken. Consider the example of Susan [not her real name], a student who attends DUET, an alternative college in Boston that uses a competency-based degree pathway that is untethered to time. A single mother, Susan has a daughter with chronic respiratory illness and had tried completing a degree at two local community colleges. She said, “Whenever my little girl got sick, I’d stay home to take care of her, missing class and assignments. I never could catch up and always ended up with F’s or withdrawals. I was using up my financial aid and not making any progress.” In the DUET program, where students set their own pace, she described simply “hitting the pause button” for a week or so when her daughter had a relapse and then starting up again when she recovered. “In this program, I set the calendar,” Susan explained.