Rio Salado Community College and Arizona State University were cited Thursday as schools that are taking tentative steps toward "competency-based education," which recognizes student mastery of subjects rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom.
Supporters of competency-based learning -- which focuses on the outcomes of learning and what students need to know in the workplace -- argue that it would be more efficient than the current system of credit hours.
"There are more actors recognizing that we need a system that produces more degrees, faster degrees and cheaper degrees -- but, most importantly, better degrees and credentials," said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education for New America Foundation.
"All of these different efforts are basically recognizing that competency is going to be key to helping us get there," said Laitinen, at a Center for American Progress meeting on the issue Thursday.
But others worry that the idea, while intriguing, might not apply to all subjects and that shifting from the current system could be a massive and disruptive undertaking.
"It's not that this is an entirely new phenomenon; there have been many programs that have been competency based in many different sectors," said Michael Tanner, vice president of the Association of Public and Land- Grant Universities. "The challenge is taking it to a national scale."
But Laitinen said discussions about competencies are growing within higher education because of concerns about educational quality.
The credit hour has long been the standard for measuring and counting student progress at colleges and universities, but there are inherent problems in measuring learning by "seat time" and credit hours, she said.
While the credit hour has helped determine faculty workloads, class schedules and federal student aid, the problem is that it is based around time and not learning.
"If it were really an accurate measure of learning, it would be able to be used like a currency," Laitinen said. "But everyone knows that as students who are trying to transfer from one institution to another, a credit hour isn't a credit hour. It's fundamentally divorced from learning."