By Anya Kamenetz IN 1893, Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, introduced to the National Education Association a novel concept: the credit hour. Roughly equivalent to one hour of lecture time a week for a 12- to 14-week semester, it became the basic unit of a college education, and the standard measure for transferring work between institutions. To be accredited, universities have had to base curriculums on credit hours and years of study. The seat-time system — one based on the hours spent in the classroom — is further reinforced by Title IV student aid: to receive need-based Pell grants or federal loans, students have had to carry a certain load of credits each semester.
After more than a century, the system equating time with learning is being challenged from high quarters.
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.