Whitney Shephard ’14 transferred from Tulane University to the College of William and Mary after her freshman year. As a public-health-major-turned-kinesiology-major, she enrolled in Cell Biology at Tulane to knock off one of her pre-med requirements.
But as she sent course descriptions about her classes at Tulane to the College, she realized that not all of her credits would transfer fully.
“There was one class that they didn’t give me credit for at first,” Shephard said. “I emailed the Registrar, and I sent in the course description, and they ended up giving me credit for the course. I would advise any transfers to look over their transcript and say, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t look right.’”
“Cracking the Credit Hour,” a new report written by Amy Laitinen for the New America Foundation, proposes that the typical credit hour fails to measure a college education accurately. As shown by the number of credits that fail to transfer, colleges often do not recognize the credit system as a representation of the knowledge students bring with them to their new institutions.
Designed by Andrew Carnegie to increase pensions for college professors, the credit hour dates back to the late 1800s as the primary unit of measurement. While discussing the “Carnegie Unit” in its 1906 report, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching stressed that the unit only measured time and not knowledge or results attained.
Schools now rely on credits to gauge a student’s progress at college. Students at the College are required to complete 120 credit hours to graduate. The College is also a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which requires use of credit hours.
The new reports argues that a disconnect between time and learning exists. Citing a Carnegie Foundation report called “The Student and His Knowledge,” Laitinen states that if time were related to knowledge, college seniors should know more than freshmen. The report to the Carnegie Foundation found that knowledge was relatively constant over time.
The reports also noted that with grade inflation on the rise, grades also fail to accurately assess the knowledge that students gain. The educational system, therefore, should review its forms of measurement.
Dean of Educational Policy Teresa Longo supports the use of credit hours, especially for the College’s curriculum.
“They are a good way to make sure students have access to breadth and depth in their education,” Longo said in an email. “For example, at William and Mary, the 72 credit-hour rule helps to ensure that students balance time spent on their primary major with time spent on other types of courses.”
The report also cited transfer credits as a major indication that credit hours fail to measure knowledge gained by the student. The report proposed the idea that if other colleges fail to accept full credit for classes taken at other universities, then colleges must not view credits as indicators of student knowledge.
University Registrar Sara Marchello felt that the use of credit hours promoted consistency between colleges.Marchello said they often look at other colleges’ course syllabi to ensure that students receive equal credit.
“At the moment, [the transfer credit system] kind of works in a very straightforward way for the vast majority of our transfer students,” Marchello said. “Our approach at [the College] for transfer credits is that we keep digging until we get it right.”
Marchello also outlined multiple ways in which students can gain credit, even if their credits failed to transfer.
“We do have the ability for students to get credit by examination,” Marchello said. “If they feel they have learned the content from a course, they can do the departmental exam.”
For international students, the College sends their transcripts to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in order to compare credits between international universities accurately.
While the report raised concerns about credits, Longo noted that the College will feel no immediate change.
“While it’s important to think about these issues, at William and Mary, the 120 credit hour rule works and we’re not looking to change it,” Longo said.