SCH—Orbiting the Giant Hairball?

Would a one-day moratorium of not saying “SCH” (Student Credit Hours) change how we frame issues? Perhaps it would have us look differently at how we approach the curriculum, or how we derive alternative solutions?  I often hear that the way SCH is counted, attributed and valued prevents us from doing what we want to do.

Breaking the Myths
Some believe that PSU unit budgets were historically based on the SCH production. I am hard pressed to believe this as a past practice given there is little evidence that as units grew or shrunk that budgets followed these same patterns. I also hear that our new performance-based budget model (PBB) is solely SCH driven; that it sets up competition for SCH; and that administration thinks the more SCH the better.  This is not accurate either. PBB revenue requirements are based on tuition revenue, however PBB expenditure budgets take into account non-tuition revenue generated activities such as unfunded faculty research and service, as well department and college administrative costs. While there is no question we need the revenue generated by the tuition paid by students, we must put the SCH in perspective. The focus should be on student success and quality.
Brief History of Student Credit Hours
Where did SCH as a measure come from anyway? Over 100 years ago, as a trustee of Cornell University, Andrew Carnegie set out to create a pension system for university professors that would be administered by the nonprofit Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  He borrowed a system that had been used by high schools for measuring a standard unit of time a student spent on a subject.  It forever became known as the “Carnegie Unit” and the defacto standard for determining high school graduation and college admissions requirements. Carnegie’s  pension  system  also spurred  higher  education to convert its own course  offerings  into time-based units, which  were  used  to  determine  faculty-workload  thresholds to qualify for the new pension program.
Understanding how Student Credit Hours translate into revenue

Let us re-examine the credit hour to understand its proper relationship to budget and not let it be the driver of what we do.

First, all SCH are not the same in the revenue they generate.  Out-of-state students pay more than in-state students, graduate students pay more than undergraduates, and some programs have differential tuition. How SCH growth is generated is also important both in terms of student success and finances.

For example, we may find that competency-based learning or credit for prior learning (CPL), although lowering SCH, enhances student success and reduce costs to students.  And in turn, is less costly to the university than recruiting and attracting a new student, or having students not see their program of study through completion.
Stuck in a hairball?
SCH is important, but it should not be the goal. I have on my shelf a book I read a number of years ago—Gordon McKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball (the image above is from the book).  The book highlights how even the most innovative organization become “giant hairballs” – tangled in an impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems; all based on what worked in the past. I would like to see us work on creative curricular solutions that guarantee high-quality learning that allow us to break away from the giant SCH hairball we find ourselves getting stuck in so often.  I wonder what others think.

One thought on “SCH—Orbiting the Giant Hairball?

  1. Credits have an elastic quality that defy simplistic tabulation schemas. In our institutional experience with transfer students we have seen schools that tabulate credit differently depending on their academic subunits, schools that use standardized credit systems in nonstandardized ways. The intuitive notion that there should be a rigid link between credit assignment and some other factor like seat-time, quickly is disabused when costs of instruction, and other factors are added to the mix. There is an almost mystical, noumenal quality to Learning, that resists simple number-crunching! Some schools, recognizing this have tried to cut through the knot by adopting contract or unit systems that bundle learning into discrete interdisciplinary units and say degree completion is 30 such units or 12. Art as well as science, indeed!

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