Publication Date: March 18, 2011
Subject: Guidance to Institutions and Accrediting Agencies Regarding a Credit Hour as Defined in the Final Regulations Published on October 29, 2010
On October 29, 2010, the Department published in the Federal Register final regulations on program integrity issues (75 FR 66832). This letter provides information concerning the definition of a credit hour and guidance on implementing these final regulations. We are providing this letter to highlight the flexibilities inherent in the definition and to correct misunderstandings circulating in the higher education community. We expect to provide further information on other provisions of the program integrity regulations in “Dear Colleague Letters” in the coming weeks.
The definition of a credit hour for Federal purposes is necessary, in part, because more than $150 billion of Federal financial aid is awarded annually based on an individual student's enrollment, as represented in number of credits. The credit hour is a basic unit of student aid eligibility, and the new regulations address vulnerabilities in the student aid programs that leave them open to fraud and abuse. However, the regulations are grounded in commonly accepted practice in higher education, do not intrude on core academic decisions made by institutions and their accrediting agencies, and are completely consistent with innovative practices such as online education, competency-based credit, and academic activities that do not rely on "seat time."
The regulations reflect the Department's responsibility to taxpayers to ensure value for their investment, while respecting recognized accrediting agencies as the "reliable authorities regarding the quality of education or training offered by the institutions or programs they accredit." Significantly, these regulations were developed only after the Department’s Inspector General conducted reviews at three of the seven regional accrediting agencies and found the oversight of institutional assignment of credit hours insufficient at all three agencies. These three agencies accounted for more than 70 percent of the Federal student aid funds awarded in 2009-10. The potential for a small number of unscrupulous institutions to exploit this lack of minimum standards led the Department to regulate in this manner to safeguard taxpayer funds.
The October 29 regulations included a definition of a credit hour under 34 CFR 600.2 (Enclosure A) for purposes of Federal programs and provisions related to accrediting agencies’ assessment of institutions’ determinations of credit hours or other measures of student work under 34 CFR 602.24(f) for purposes of the title IV student financial assistance programs. In addition, the regulations revised paragraph (l) of the title IV program clock-to-credit-hour requirements in 34 CFR 668.8(k) and (l) that may be applicable to a nondegree, undergraduate program.
A credit hour for Federal purposes is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates some minimum amount of student work reflective of the amount of work expected in a Carnegie unit: key phrases being "institutionally established," "equivalency," "reasonably approximates," and "minimum amount."
A credit hour is a unit of measure that gives value to the level of instruction, academic rigor, and time requirements for a course taken at an educational institution. At its most basic, a credit hour is a proxy measure of a quantity of student learning. The higher education community has long used the credit hour, as defined by the Carnegie unit, as part of a process to establish a standard measure of faculty workloads, costs of instruction, and rates of educational efficiencies as well as a measure of student work for transfer students.
In keeping with the original purpose of providing a consistent measure of at least a minimum quantity of a student's academic engagement, the definition of a credit hour will establish a basis for measuring eligibility for Federal funding. This standard measure will provide increased assurance that a credit hour has the necessary educational content to warrant the amounts of Federal funds that are awarded to participants in Federal funding programs, and that students at different institutions are treated equitably in the awarding of those funds.
We recognize, however, that other measures of educational content are being developed by institutions, and we do not intend to limit the methods by which an institution may measure a student's work in his or her educational activities. We, therefore, are explicitly providing institutions the flexibility to demonstrate alternative methods of measuring student learning, so long as they result in institutional equivalencies that reasonably approximate the definition of a credit hour for Federal purposes.
Flexibility for institutions
An institution is responsible for determining the credit hours awarded for coursework in its programs in accordance with the definition of a credit hour for Federal program purposes. These credit hours are used to determine the eligibility of the institution and its educational programs for participation in Federal programs. As required under the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), they are also a measure of student work used by an institution to determine the eligibility of a student for Federal student assistance and the amount of the student’s assistance.
The definition provides several critical flexibilities for institutions in determining the appropriate amount of credit hours for student coursework:
- The institution determines the amount of credit awarded for student work. It is up to institutions to gain the confidence through peer review in the accreditation process that their credit hour policies and practices consistently meet conventional academic expectations.
- A credit hour is expected to be a reasonable approximation of a minimum amount of student work in a Carnegie unit in accordance with commonly accepted practice in higher education. It is important to note that there is no requirement that a credit hour exactly duplicate the amount of work in paragraph (1) of the definition, as is highlighted by the provisions of paragraph (2). The requirement is that a credit hour reasonably approximate that minimum amount of work in paragraph (1).
- The credit hour definition is a minimum standard that does not restrict an institution from setting a higher standard that requires more student work per credit hour.
- The definition does not dictate particular amounts of classroom time versus out-of-class student work.
- In determining the amount of work the institution's learning outcomes will entail, as under current practice, the institution may take into consideration alternative delivery methods, measurements of student work, academic calendars, disciplines, and degree levels.
- To the extent an institution believes that complying with the Federal definition of a credit hour would not be appropriate for academic and other institutional needs, it may adopt a separate measure for those purposes.
The intent of these flexibilities is to recognize the differences across institutions, fields of study, types of coursework, and delivery methods, while providing a consistent measure of student work for purposes of Federal programs.
The credit hour definition does not emphasize the concept of "seat time" (time in class) as the primary metric for determining the amount of student work for Federal purposes. Institutions may assign credit hours to courses for an amount of work represented by verifiable student achievement of institutionally established learning outcomes. Credits may be awarded on the basis of documentation of the amount of work a typical student is expected to complete within a specified amount of academically engaged time, or on the basis of documented student learning calibrated to that amount of academically engaged time for a typical student. Thus, the definition for Federal purposes represents nothing new in this regard.
Accrediting agency responsibilities
While not part of the definition of a credit hour, the final regulations also require an accrediting agency to conduct an effective review and evaluation of the reliability and accuracy of the institution's assignment of credit hours used for Federal program purposes. The accrediting agency--
- Must review the institution's policies and procedures for determining the credit hours and the application of the institution's policies and procedures to its programs and coursework;
- Must make a reasonable determination of whether the institution's assignment of credit hours conforms to commonly accepted practice in higher education;
- May review and evaluate an institution's policies and procedures for determining credit hour assignments through use of sampling or other methods in the evaluation; and
- Must take such actions that it deems appropriate to address any deficiencies that it identifies at an institution, as it does in relation to other deficiencies it may identify, subject to the requirements of 34 CFR part 602.
An agency must promptly notify the Secretary if it finds systemic noncompliance with the agency's policies, or significant noncompliance regarding one or more programs at the institution.
These same responsibilities apply to the State agencies -- currently New York, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico -- that are recognized by the Secretary under 34 CFR part 603 as reliable authorities regarding the quality of public postsecondary vocational education in their States.
Institutions and accrediting agencies are responsible for properly implementing the credit hour regulatory requirements that are effective July 1, 2011. The Secretary understands that institutions and accrediting agencies face challenges in implementing these new requirements. For the 2011-2012 award year, as long as an institution or accrediting agency is in the process of complying with these provisions, we will consider the institution or accrediting agency to be making a good-faith effort to comply, and Department staff will take this effort into consideration when reviewing an institution's or accrediting agency's implementation of the regulations. Accrediting agencies and State approval agencies whose written policies, procedures, criteria, and materials are not finalized prior to July 1, 2011, may make reasonable allowances in their review of institutions during the 2011-2012 award year.
Enclosure A provides the regulatory language and additional questions and answers. Enclosure B provides, for accrediting agencies, a “Supplement to Guidelines for Preparing/Reviewing Petitions and Compliance Reports Addressing New Credit Hour Regulations.”
Thank you for your participation in this important work.
Eduardo M. Ochoa