At most colleges and universities, if you want a degree, you have to earn a certain number of credit hours.

It’s been that way for more than a century.

But now, officials at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities want to change the definition so that credits are no longer tied to a unit of time.

The proposal, which was floated at this week’s board of trustees meeting, is itself a sign of the times. It’s part of a growing movement in higher education to measure “learning outcomes” rather than “seat time” — or hours in class — as a marker of student achievement.

“We’re trying to write a policy for the future,” said Leslie Mercer, associate vice chancellor at MnSCU. It’s a recognition, she said, “that time isn’t the only thing that’s important.”

Last fall, MnSCU signaled its interest in breaking free of the old “credit hour” mold when its trustees adopted a strategic plan called “Charting the Future.” Among other things, it calls for exploring new ways to award credits and degrees, based more directly on student performance.

Mercer notes that many in academia have long struggled with the concept of the credit hour because it puts all the emphasis on time spent with instructors. It’s become an increasingly hot topic with the growth of online courses that students can complete at their own pace.

Last year, for the first time, the federal government signaled that it’s willing to award financial aid for courses that are no longer tied to credit hours, but only on an experimental basis.

The new proposal would scratch MnSCU’s definition of credit as a “measure of instructional time.” Instead, it would allow its colleges and universities to award credit for a course that “takes into consideration achieved student learning outcomes and instructional time.”

Mercer says that the new wording is just a “tiny piece” of the puzzle and that it will take time to see how it plays out.

“We recognize today that the world is changing in higher education, and that this is something we should be open to,” she said.