A main reason the scandal persists is that our system is built around the strange idea of the “credit hour,” a unit of academic time that does little to measure student learning. The credit hour originated around the turn of the 20th century, when the industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie moved to create a pension system for college professors. (It’s now known as TIAA-CREF.) Pensions were reserved for professors who worked full time, which ended up being defined as a minimum of 12 hours of classroom teaching per week in a standard 15-week semester.But colleges were left to judge the quality of credit hours by affixing grades to courses, and the quality of colleges themselves would be judged by — well, there was the rub. Colleges didn’t want to be judged by anyone other than themselves, and remarkably, the government went along with it. Yes, colleges are held accountable by nonprofit accrediting organizations — but those are, in turn, run by other colleges. When asked, Western Oklahoma’s accreditor said it had never heard of the school’s three-credits-in-10-days scheme and would look into it. But the next scheduled accreditation review isn’t until 2017.The lack of meaningful academic standards in higher education drags down the entire system. Grade inflation, even (or especially) at the most elite institutions, is rampant. A landmark book published last year, “Academically Adrift,” found that many students at traditional colleges showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, and spent their time socializing, working or wasting time instead of studying. (And that’s not even considering the problem of low graduation rates.)...But the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do. There are many routes to doing this. In the arts and sciences, scholarly associations could define and update what it means to be proficient in a field. So could professional organizations and employers in vocational and technical fields.
Carey's argument, one numerous "progressives" are also advancing, could open the door for some kind of centralized definition of what a college education would mean. For his part, Walter Russell Mead welcomes our new national standardized testing overlords.
There are perhaps some good reasons, though, why conservatives should be skeptical about a further standardization of college-level curricula.