Credit Hour Definition

A package of program integrity regulations issued by the Department of Education in 2010, includes a federal definition of a "credit hour." The federal definition of a credit hour is:

  • "(1) One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or 
  • “(2) At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.”

Having a federal definition of “credit hour” puts the federal government squarely in the middle of an academic decision-making process and limits the ability of institutions to respond to new models of higher education.  No amount of clarification by the Department can surmount the inherent problem of imposing the rigidity of federal regulation on a dynamic process—a process that has allowed our system of higher education to grow, improve, and respond to changing circumstances. 


The awarding and defining of academic credit is central to an institution’s academic mission and to the value and meaning of its diploma.  In a rapidly changing environment of increased student mobility and new modes of course delivery, institutions are taking a careful look at their policies. However, federal mandates on the standards to be used are not only inappropriate, but also place at risk one of the most effective quality-control mechanisms in higher education.  


The fight over the federal definition of a credit hour began to build in November 2009, when the Inspector General of the Department of Education issued a report criticizing the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) regional accrediting body for failing to clearly define a credit hour.  Just one month later, the Inspector General issued another harsh report disparaging the Higher Learning Commission for lax standards relating to credit hour standards when the body chose to accredit American Intercontinental University.  

The definition of a credit hour was included on the agenda of the program integrity negotiated rulemaking sessions that the Department of Education convened from November 2009-January 2010.  During the negotiation process, NAICU representatives argued against including a federal definition, and agreement was reached to drop it. However, because consensus was not reached on other issues discussed during negotiated rulemaking, the Department was not bound to any of the agreements reached by the negotiators.  Thus, the agency did include a credit hour definition in the proposed regulations and that definition remains in effect.  

More recently, the Department of Education proposed amending the regulations governing the definition of a credit hour by repealing existing regulations and allowing institutions, in conjunction with their accrediting agency, to determine what constitutes a credit hour.  This proposal, which was included in a larger package of reforms subject to negotiated rulemaking, was criticized, and negotiators agreed to retain the definition in modified form.  Legislation to repeal the definition has also been introduced in each of the last several congressional sessions. 

What You Can Do

Contact your Senators and Representatives to explain the academic intrusion associated with the federal definition of a credit hour.  


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