Rethinking the Carnegie Unit

Originally published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on January 25, 2015, with co-authors Elena Silva and Taylor White.

In 1905, retired steel magnate Andrew Carnegie then the world’s richest man, wrote a letter to college presidents declaring his intention to establish a pension system for “one of the poorest paid but highest professions in our nation”—college professors. He created the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to run the system and sent a ten million dollar check to the Foundation’s trustees, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, to finance it. Adding to the challenge was the reality that Carnegie’s ten million dollar grant, while substantial for the day, wasn’t enough to cover the faculty at every institution calling itself a college or university. So Eliot and his colleagues had to narrow the number of qualifying campuses. “To be ranked as a college,” and thus be eligible to participate in the Carnegie pension plan, an institution “must have at least six professors giving their entire time to college and university work, a course of four full years in liberal arts and sciences, and should require for admission, not less than the usual four years of academic or high school preparation, or its equivalent.”

“High school preparation” meant many different things in an era when secondary education was mostly limited to the elite. (The national graduation rate hadn’t reached 10 percent.) The Carnegie trustees, as a result, wanted to provide guidance to schools and colleges. They turned to the New York State Board of Regents, which had established high school graduation standards But the task wasn’t simple. American higher education in the early twentieth century was a still nascent and largely ill-defined enterprise serving less than 1 percent of the nation’s students.

The system was so new that differences between high school and colleges weren’t always clear. “The term college is used to designate . . . institutions varying so widely in entrance requirements, standards of instruction, and facilities for work, that for the purposes of this foundation, it is necessary to use, at least for the present, some arbitrary definition of that term,” Carnegie officials wrote in Science in 1906.4 Many colleges demanded little more than elementary levels of geography, arithmetic, grammar, reading, and spelling of their applicants. Iowa State College, for example, required only that students be fourteen years old, able to read and write English, and able to pass an arithmetic test.

To determine which institutions were eligible to take part in the Carnegie pension system, the Foundation had to define what a college was based on blocks of instruction called “counts”—ten weeks of study, five days a week. Carnegie’s leaders also consulted the newly formed College Entrance Examination Board, which had begun producing course outlines and college admission tests in subjects ranging from Latin to physics. And they tapped into the work of the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten, a panel of prominent educators led by Charles Eliot that had called for a standardized high school curriculum comprised of four years of English and a foreign language, and three years of history,science, and mathematics that would be taught “consecutively and thoroughly” to all students.

The Carnegie trustees concluded that college entrance requirements should be “designated in terms of units, a unit being a course of five periods weekly throughout an academic year of the preparatory school.” Fourteen such units constituted “the minimum amount of preparation” for students heading for college. And colleges that required fourteen units for admission would, if they met the Foundation’s other requirements, qualify for the pension fund.

Ultimately, Andrew Carnegie’s largesse wouldn’t be enough to sustain the pension program, and in 1914 the Foundation spun it off into an independent non-profit organization, known today as TIAA-CREF.

But the Carnegie Unit, as it came to be called, became deeply rooted in the American educational landscape.

Colleges and universities quickly crafted new admission requirements to conform to the demands of the Carnegie pension program, causing the nation’s rapidly expanding high school system to introduce new diploma requirements to ensure that students amassed the required fourteen course credits on their way to graduation—each credit representing some 120 hours of instruction over a school year.

What’s more, many in education, including Carnegie’s leaders, didn’t see the Carnegie Unit merely as a pathway to pensions, but as a broader mechanism to improve the administrative efficiency of schools and colleges in the spirit of the “scientific management” movement of the day.

Studies of universities highlighted a host of operational inefficiencies and a general lack of standardization. The Carnegie Foundation itself underwrote a study by industrial engineer Morris Cooke titled “Academic and Industrial Efficiency.” Lecture halls sat empty for hours on end in many institutions, Cooke reported. And course enrollments were measured in widely varying ways, making it difficult to calculate faculty workloads and operating costs with any confidence. Higher education, Cooke concluded, needed a common metric. He recommended “the most immediately available unit”—Carnegie’s recently created “student hour” that represented “an hour of lecture, of lab work, or of recitation room work, for a single pupil,” with the standard college course comprising three such hours of weekly contact between students and professors over three-and-a-half-months-long semesters. “With this as a basis,” Cooke wrote, “we can get some tally on the efficiency with which the buildings are operated, the cost of undergraduate teaching, and other items which go to make up the expenses of a university.”

Before long, the Carnegie Unit became the central organizing feature of the American educational enterprise, a common currency enabling countless academic transactions among students, faculty, and administrators at myriad public, nonprofit, private, and for-profit institutions, as well as between education policy makers at every level of government.12 It helped to structure an undeveloped system that would become the envy of the world. Everything from faculty workloads and compensation to athletic eligibility, academic calendars, course sequences, degree programs, daily school schedules, instructional strategies, institutional accountability, and accreditation, as well as eligibility for billions of dollars of federal financial aid, would come to rely on the Carnegie Unit.

This greatly simplified the work of educators, registrars, bursars, institutional planners, and many others who would otherwise be forced to rely on much more cumbersome methods of quantifying the value of students’ courses.

The Carnegie Unit’s expediency supported the rapid expansion of secondary and post-secondary education in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Spurred by a growing national population, child labor prohibitions, civil rights laws, and such federal higher education initiatives as the Morrill Acts, the G.I. Bill, and the dramatic expansion of financial aid under the Higher Education Act of 1964, enrollment swelled in both secondary and postsecondary schools. The Carnegie Unit provided a shared metric for the many new institutions and new types of institutions emerging on the education landscape—a readily recognizable building block that permitted American education to grow faster and more efficiently than would have been possible otherwise. In no small part, it was the Carnegie Unit’s simplicity that enabled a wide range of higher education institutions to flourish.

No less importantly, the Carnegie Unit has, since its inception, helped to ensure that the vast majority of the nation’s students, regardless of their backgrounds or the institutions they attend, receive the same number of instructional hours in high school and college courses—supplying an often-undervalued component of equal educational opportunity in American education.

Today the Carnegie Unit is under intensifying scrutiny. Motivated by a desire to promote deeper learning among a wider range of students, policymakers, philanthropic organizations, and educators themselves are pressing for new educational models that are, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has written, “defined by learning outcomes, not ‘seat-time’ requirements.” Buoyed by new insights into student learning, advances in technology, and, especially in higher education, escalating costs, these new models aim to make the nation’s secondary and post-secondary education systems more effective, more equitable, and more efficient.

Reformers are pursuing two major strategies to achieve those goals. They are seeking to make student performance more transparent, in the hopes of strengthening the quality of instruction and increasing schools’ and colleges’ accountability for student learning. And they are promoting more flexible educational pathways to respond to the varying learning needs of increasingly diverse student populations and to make education more accessible and affordable for all students.

Many change advocates charge that the Carnegie Unit has slowed the pace of these reforms. They argue that by stressing students’ exposure to academic disciplines rather than their mastery of them, the Carnegie Unit discourages educators from examining closely students’ strengths and weaknesses and masks the quality of student learning. And by promoting standardized instructional systems based on consistent amounts of student-teacher contact, it discourages more flexible educational designs.

Such criticisms aren’t new, but rather reflect long-standing dilemmas about how best to organize complex educational systems. “[N]one recognizes more clearly than the Foundation that these standards have served their purpose,” Carnegie Foundation President Henry Suzzallo wrote of the Carnegie Unit in the Foundation’s 1934 annual report. “They should give place to more flexible, more individual, more exact and revealing standards of performance as rapidly as these may be achieved.”15 In the 1960s and 1970s, the Foundation’s Carnegie Commission on Higher Education urged institutions to shorten the length of degree programs, offer more flexible routes to degrees, and grant credit for training and experience outside of formal institutions. As recently as 2003, former Carnegie Senior Scholar Thomas Ehrlich, serving as co-editor of the book How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education, warned that the Carnegie Unit may be “perpetuating bad habits that get in the way of institutional change in higher education.”

But developing the necessary infrastructure to accomplish such change and securing the broad-based political and professional endorsements to bring it to scale have proven difficult.

As a result, many of the innovations that have taken place over the years remained largely on the margin of our educational systems. In an effort to help inform today’s reform conversations, this report analyzes the Carnegie Unit’s role in American education. It examines reformers’ calls for greater transparency and flexibility and analyzes their assessments of the Carnegie Unit as a potential impediment to innovation. And it examines what a shift away from the Carnegie Unit would mean for the American educational system as a whole.

The Carnegie Foundation is committed to making American education more effective, more equitable, and more efficient at this critical junction in the nation’s history. Like President Suzzallo eight decades earlier, the Foundation supports instruction tailored to students’ individual needs in pursuit of deeper learning and greater transparency on student performance; where the Carnegie Unit is a barrier to such improvements, it should be moved aside. We have concluded that American education’s reliance on the Carnegie Unit is indeed an impediment to some of the solutions sought by today’s reformers. Most notably, the federal government’s requirement that students must spend federal financial aid at colleges and universities measuring student progress with the Carnegie Unit is a barrier to the spread of flexible delivery models in higher education.

But the Carnegie Unit also continues to play a vital administrative function in education, organizing the work of students and faculty in a vast array of schools and colleges.

It provides a common currency that makes possible innumerable exchanges and interconnections among institutions. And it continues to provide a valuable opportunity-to-learn standard for students in both higher education and K-12 education, where inequitable resources and variable quality are more the rule than the exception.

The complete report is available here.



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