More than a century ago, the Carnegie Foundation invented the "credit hour," which became the basic unit of academic time across education, measuring hours spent in class but not necessarily what students learned. Now, the foundation is reviewing the whole model with an eye possibly toward a more competency-based approach — awarding credit for what students learn, rather than for how long.
The U.S. government is interested, too. In March, the Department of Education approved a competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University and signaled other colleges could get federal approval for programs that don't mark time in traditional credit hours.
For students who want to move through college quickly and more cheaply, "this has the potential of really changing the cost curve," says Jeffrey Selingo, an editor-at-large at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the new book "College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students."
For others, it could free up time for other important learning experiences, like research with faculty or study abroad.
But change won't come easily. The credit hour is consistent and measurable. Carnegie admits competency-based learning is hugely complex, and it could end up sticking with the credit hour. When 46 countries in Europe recently integrated their system of academic credit, they stuck with a mostly time-based system.
Meanwhile, similar tectonic shifts may be contemplated with accreditation — another traditional pillar of American higher education that's been a model for the world, but which technology threatens to transform.
Accreditation, a process essentially run by traditional universities, determines who can award credits and degrees and collect federal financial aid dollars. It offers a quality control other countries envy, but it also limits supply. To education entrepreneurs who can't give credits or degrees, it's an innovation-squelching monopoly that keeps them from offering their solutions to the problem of college affordability.
The Obama administration said earlier this year it wants more flexibility in the accreditation system, to reward things like value and "student outcomes."
Such developments could open the door to new types of providers, which has entrepreneurs optimistic, though pushing for more.
"The whole monopoly on credentialing is slowly breaking," says Burck Smith, co-founder of Baltimore-based Straighterline, a small start-up with large ambitions.
The company offers online courses (self-paced but with tutors available) in subjects like algebra and chemistry. For now, it can't offer credit itself, because it's not a traditional, accredited university. But about 40 colleges have agreed to award credit to students who finish Straighterline courses —"unbundling" some of their teaching to a specialized provider.
Students also can't use federal aid to pay for Straighterline courses. But because Straighterline doesn't have a campus, it doesn't charge for things like football teams, student unions and career counselors. It charges only for teaching: $99 a month, a price most can pay without federal aid. It plans to enroll as many as 15,000 this year.
Some colleges can justify their $50,000 price tag, Smith says. But for students who just want well-taught basic courses, without bells and whistles, why shouldn't the market offer just that?
Asked recently whether he would push for more changes to open up the market, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wants to make room for more experiments and to see the data.
"College costs are crushing lots of Americans," Duncan said. "I think technology has a chance, an opportunity, to be very, very disruptive, very helpful there."
"I'm extraordinarily interested," he added. "I'm not sold."
There's no simple story here. We're headed to a blended world, a partnership between innovators and traditional universities.