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Shorter college semesters may not be here to stay

Faster courses have ‘been particularly encouraging in closing achievement gaps,’ argues one administrator

Many college students feel the slog of the semester. Yet because of COVID, that slog was shorter at many colleges this last school year, as institutions of higher ed tried new ways of conducting classes. One ad hoc experiment that could have lasting effects on education is shortened semesters.

Jessica Ruf reported the case for shortened semesters in an article for Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine that is making waves.

“Proponents of the eight-week semester praise its flexibility, especially for working students and student parents. That’s because, if a life event abruptly derails a student from completing their semester, fewer courses will be impacted and, thus, fewer credits will be lost. Plus, these students need not wait long for the arrival of a new semester and a fresh start,” Ruf wrote in June.

Laurie Fladd, director at Achieving the Dream, a non-profit that helps community college students succeed, is one of those proponents. “If they need to stop out, there’s a shorter amount of time before they can jump right back in and get right back into the swing of things and keep their momentum going,” she told Diverse.

Another fan of shorter semesters is Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey.

“Those of us who obsess over student success know that many of the factors are largely out of colleges’ control: family issues, the larger economy, the occasional global pandemic. But the academic calendar actually is under colleges’ control. We can change it just by choosing to. And in the places that have jumped in with both feet, the results have been encouraging. They’ve been particularly encouraging in closing achievement gaps,” Reed wrote for his Inside Higher Ed blog.

Normal semester lengths are coming back, for now

But it’s unlikely most colleges will flip to a shorter eight-week semester rather than a 16-week one. Most of the benefits are that shorter semesters are linked directly with community colleges and those students whose sole focus is not college, especially parents.

Courtney Honeycutt, a graduate from Amarillo College who Ruf interviewed about the effectiveness of shorter semesters, says one benefit of the semesters is that she gets “to spend more time with my daughter and I get to remain a full-time student.”

There are many skeptics of this change, including professors at many of the colleges that have adopted a shortened program.

Earlham College, which is a private liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, shortened their semesters to seven weeks because of COVID. Anne Houtman, the college’s president and a former biology professor, said there was some dissent amongst the faculty.

“My scientists, in particular, have been insistent that we can’t teach science in seven weeks,” Houtman told Diverse.

While Earlham College plans to continue the seven-week semester through the fall, it will be returning to regular length semesters not long after.

Time and learning constraints seem to be the chief concerns among detractors of shortened semesters.

Romona Goth of Scottsdale Community College told the Northeast Valley News student paper, “In 101, you have to make sure that students in English 101 are prepared for English 102. In 16 weeks you get a lot of time, but in 8 weeks you have to get it down to the very nuts and bolts. This is it. These are the downbeats and this is what you have to teach and you have to know to get out of there. If we don’t all have the same downbeats, now when you move into English 102, you don’t have skills that you need for English 102. That happens right now in 16 weeks. Students will come into my 102 class and not have the skills I need them to have.”

Other schools, however, have compressed the teaching schedule further with seemingly few ill effects. Schools such as Colorado College, have adopted the block plan, where classes are taught in a mere three weeks of intense learning.

The length-of-semester debate is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Much like the debate over the use of standardized tests in enrollment, COVID took an existing point of contention about schooling and turned it into an unexpected experiment in learning.

Experts will be arguing over the results for some time to come.

MORE: I chose a community college. It was the best decision I’ve ever made, and it saved me $80,000 too.

IMAGE: Ben Parker Photography/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Peter Smith -- Colorado College