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College credits: Not just a matter of time

By Jennifer SifferlenColumnist

Students need 124 credit hours in order to graduate from Hofstra University with a bachelor’s degree. At $1,200 per credit and rising, a college degree, here at Hofstra and across the country, is becoming exponentially harder for students and families to afford.

As the higher education market excludes more and more potential customers with the rising price of tuition, the traditional system of earning graduation credits through time spent in a classroom is being rethought.

“In March of this year, the Department of Education invited colleges to submit programs for consideration under Title IV aid that do not rely on seat time,” wrote Anya Kamenetz for The New York Times. These “competency-based” education methods are now being considered in institutions across the country.

Systems that focus on ability rather than class hours, like Northern Arizona University’s online Personalized Learning program, for example, offer credits for completing various tests, projects and papers individually, with academic assistance from an advisor. According to the university’s website, students pay a flat rate and “receive unlimited access to online classes and lessons” to complete as many objectives as they can.

This structure grants students the flexibility to spend more or less time completing requirements than a typical semester allows, potentially shaving off semesters from their length of enrollment.

For the students and families burying themselves in debt in order to make tuition payments, this could mean one less semester, one less loan, one less burden.

What the system gains in flexibility and affordability, however, it tends to lose in quality.

Students with a strong sense of independence may find success in such methods, particularly if they major in more individualized fields, like software design and engineering.

“But for most traditional students, this level of independence may not maximize their learning,” said Hofstra provost and senior vice president of academic affairs Dr. Herman Berliner.

In the switch from classrooms to living rooms, students “completely lose the learning that is fostered by different ideas and different points of views from [their] peers,” said Berliner.

Online and solo forms of education tend to be at odds with the respected liberal arts model.

“The virtue of a liberal arts education is that it provides the graduate with enduring communication and critical thinking skills that are” likely to maintain relevance in an evolving job market, wrote Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz in an opinion/editorial piece for Long Island Newsday.

Dr. Fernando Espinoza, Hofstra professor of physics and astronomy, agrees. “It’s not just a number of credits; it’s a structure – how they interact with faculty, how they work on projects. All these things need to be considered,” he said.

The new mode of competency-based credit overlooks social abilities gained in the classroom that will be crucial on the job, but the credit-hour system is not without its flaws, either.

Both styles of evaluation can neglect theory, replacing it with rote memorization and blind execution. Especially in non-major distribution courses, students will often go through the motions, executing math formulas or memorizing typical literary symbols without analyzing the theories behind them.

“We need to produce better critical thinkers,” said Espinoza. “We’re not doing that.”

The expansion of student debt in the United States is nothing less than a crisis, and taking steps such as implementing a new model of competency-based education may be part of the solution. But this approach has serious limitations in the development of well-rounded graduates. While these programs certainly have their place, they will not be ousting the traditional credit-hour-centered, liberal arts model anytime soon.

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