Changing the Way We Account for College Credit: Our System of Certifying Credit Based on Seat Time Rather Than on Learning No Longer Makes Sense in an Era in Which College Costs Are Skyrocketing and Nontraditional Students Have Become the Majority

By Laitinen, Amy | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Changing the Way We Account for College Credit: Our System of Certifying Credit Based on Seat Time Rather Than on Learning No Longer Makes Sense in an Era in Which College Costs Are Skyrocketing and Nontraditional Students Have Become the Majority


Laitinen, Amy, Issues in Science and Technology


For centuries, the United States has been the envy of the world in terms of its higher education system. But now we are largely coasting on a bygone reputation, obscuring the fact that high-quality, affordable college credentials are not getting into the hands of the students who need them most.

One of the greatest assets of America's higher education system is that we try to provide broad access to college credentials. Instead of remaining content to have a handful of private institutions that largely served the elite, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act in the 1860s, providing support for the creation of our public land-grant universities. A century later, hundreds of community colleges were created to ensure open access for all who wanted to enroll in higher education after high school. As awareness grew about the prohibitive expense of a college education, we made sure that all students who wanted to attend could afford it by providing generous state subsidies and federal support such as the GI Bill and Pell Grants. These investments allowed unprecedented numbers of Americans to enjoy the benefits of higher education and helped make us the most college-educated country in the world.

But the tides are changing for our great system. We are slipping, fast. Once first in the world among the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of young adults with college degrees, the United States now ranks 14th. Whereas other nations' young people are far more likely to have college degrees than their parents, the United States is on the verge of having an older generation that is better educated than the younger. This couldn't come at a worse time. Technological development and structural shifts in the global economy mean that nearly two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education in the next five years. One-third will require a bachelor's degree or higher, and about 30% will require some college or an associate degree.

It's not just the young who need higher education. Those who have seen their blue-collar jobs and membership in the middle class disappear are also yearning to learn the postsecondary skills essential for them to succeed economically. As routine work becomes increasingly automated, employers need workers with the skills necessary to handle complex and changing tasks and situations. A college credential is currently the easiest, if not necessarily the most accurate, proxy for those skills.

Yet even as college is becoming more essential, it is also becoming much more expensive. Tuition and fee increases have outpaced even health care costs, rising by more than four times the rate of inflation during the past 25 years. Students and families are covering those increases with student loan debt. Two-thirds of today's students graduate with student loans, owing an average of $26,600. The nation's collective student loan debt is more than $1 trillion, exceeding even our collective credit card debt.

Part of the problem is that our concepts of what colleges and college students look like have not kept pace with the realities. The collegiate archetype--a well-prepared 18-year-old ready to move into a dorm and study full time at the same college for four years, all of it paid for by mom and dad--is now the exception, not the rule. And as for the bucolic residential campus experience? That, too, is an exception. About 80% of today's students are commuters. Nearly 45% of undergraduates attend community colleges. Nearly 60% attend two or more institutions before they graduate. More and more students are taking some or all of their courses online. In sum, students today are more likely to be older, working, attending part time, and learning outside of traditional credit-bearing classrooms than students in the past. Their lives demand a much different and much better kind of education.

Because many of today's students are juggling work and family, higher education needs to be more responsive to these scheduling and financial constraints. …

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