Let’s Replace the Carnegie Unit

The future of higher education is competency-based credentialing.

With students going deep in debt in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, it’s time to seriously consider a strategy that has the potential to accelerate learning and decrease costs. Competency-based education could replace the traditional Carnegie unit, which was developed in 1906, with students’ demonstrated mastery of required subjects.

Although seat-time is easy to calculate, it flies in the face of the principle of individual differences. Why can’t students who bring to the classroom the knowledge and skills they acquired elsewhere be given credit towards a bachelor’s degree? Even the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the system, wants to consign it to history.

Even the Carnegie Foundation, which developed the system, wants to consign it to history.To understand why, it’s necessary to rewind the tape to 1905, when Andrew Carnegie donated $10 million to create a pension fund for educators in colleges, universities, and technical schools. At that time, there were no standards to define education. As a result, the following year, the foundation created the Carnegie unit, which measures the amount of time a student studies a subject with a teacher. The foundation would back teacher pensions for any post-secondary institution that followed a 120-hour credit standard. If colleges wanted the foundation’s money, they had to follow its rules. And they did in droves.

Fast forward to 2005, when Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Its purpose was to report evidence of “meaningful student learning outcomes” rather than just seat-time. It was clear by then that the information economy had made the Carnegie unit an anachronism. But it took Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in 2011 to confirm that view. They found little or no meaningful improvement in skills like student writing and reasoning after four years. In other words, how long students had been taught was no assurance of what they could do.

Does that mean that college is a waste of time and money? No, but it does mean that a different method is needed to assess the value of a bachelor’s degree. In the final analysis, the contacts made as an undergraduate alone can make the four years worthwhile for some. It’s one reason why the Ivies and other elite institutions continue to be coveted. It’s highly doubtful that these schools are intrinsically superior, but they possess the cachet to attract students. One student said it best: “Honestly, I feel like nothing I’ve learned in the classroom will help me do what I want to do in the end. I think it’s the people I meet, the friends I make, that really matter.”

The supreme irony in all this is that Andrew Carnegie had a low opinion of college. In his era, very few of those commanding industries had wasted their time in what he considered merely lollygagging on campus. In The Empire of Business, he wrote that “college education, as it exists, is fatal to success in that domain.” Things haven’t changed—witness what Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have achieved without a degree—and Carnegie’s words remain highly relevant. The knowledge gained by students on campus too often is “adapted for life upon another planet.”

Recognizing that possession of valuable knowledge and skills can be acquired outside the classroom, almost all states have adopted competency-based education on the high-school level. In this regard, high schools are far more advanced than colleges, which still depend overwhelmingly on seat-time. The truth is that student-centered learning means nothing if it does not take into account the different interests and needs of students, as well as the prior learning that has equipped them to succeed in the American economy.

Rather than sitting through a full semester, students could prove their existing mastery of the material.If the Carnegie unit were abolished, what would the undergraduate curriculum look like? For one thing, it would be highly flexible by allowing students to demonstrate their wherewithal any time during the course of the school year. Rather than sitting through a full semester, consisting of lectures, labs, and term papers, they could request permission to prove their mastery of the material. It would be akin to an audition before a single professor or panel. Students who passed muster would then automatically receive full credit toward graduation. This approach could save students thousands of dollars in tuition and books. Furthermore, it would be an incentive for non-traditional students to apply for admission, knowing that they could tailor their educations to meet their unique needs and interests. Yes, some rethinking would have to be done of how and when students pay, but logistical problems like that could be solved with enough time and effort.

Accelerated learning means less time and money spent on a degree. With the cost of tuition and books showing no sign of abating, that’s no small consideration. If college and university presidents genuinely believe in the importance of student-centered learning, it behooves them to support this change. Purdue University-Global, the University of Massachusetts-Global, the University of Louisville, and the University of Wisconsin are the most prominent to date to have done so, but more are certain to follow. There will always be a demand for the traditional route to a bachelor’s degree. But with a degree remaining significant for hiring and promotion, pressure will build to reward real-world experience.

Purists will oppose such a change, arguing that accelerated learning debases standards. But why subject students to material they already have mastered? The economy needs their wherewithal. Forcing them to jump through a series of hoops is a waste of time and money. The transition will clearly require a shift in school culture and pedagogy, which is why learning today is increasingly seen as a partnership between professors, students, and parents. Nevertheless, tradition dies hard in education.

If higher education does not adapt, many colleges will cease to exist. Already, many dozens of private colleges have failed to meet the Department of Education’s financial responsibility standards. Even Harvard, with its formidable endowment, has outstanding debt of $5 billion, while Dartmouth lost its triple-A bond rating at one point. From a training ground for gentlemen clergy, higher education in America has become a huge industry that is an indispensable part of the national economy. It’s time to bring it into the 21st century.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.