The University of Minnesota will implement a year-round calendar pilot program this fall, an alluring prospect to schools around the nation that are under pressure to be more efficient and cost effective.
The new year-round option for two College of Design programs mirrors a nationwide trend in higher education.
“This is the future of higher education,” said Edwin Sexton, associate academic vice president for curriculum at Brigham Young University-Idaho, which went year round in 2007. “Colleges can’t afford to just leave their campus sitting empty all summer.”
Schools see increased tuition revenue, higher student enrollment and year-round facility use as benefits to a trimester system.
But schools in a trimester model battle possible complications with financial aid disbursement, employment and internship opportunities and research conflicts with faculty.
Last year, University president Eric Kaler assembled a small ad hoc committee to assess whether or not the University should seriously consider adding a full third summer semester to the academic calendar.
After meeting with officials in each college, the committee determined that while a University-wide full summer calendar was not yet necessary, there were certain places where the University could expand its summer curriculum.
College of Design Dean Thomas Fisher said the idea was considered in the past but was always limited by “bureaucratic obstacles.”
“One of the big issues is to get rid of some of those institutional barriers that had been put into place over the years just assuming that everybody wanted the summer off,” he said.
Fisher said now that the University supports the idea, the program is likely to be successful.
BYU-Idaho adopted the trimester system in 2007. The school operates year round with three distinct 14-week semesters and assigns individual students to one of the tracks. Students only have to go to two out of the three semesters, but they can apply to attend all three and graduate faster.
Sexton said the system has allowed the school to accept thousands more students than was previously possible. At any given moment, the school has about 15,500 students on campus, with about 27,000 annually.
“The biggest benefit is that we’re able to provide an education to a larger number of students than we would in a two semester calendar,” Sexton said.
It took a while for students at BYU-Idaho to become accustomed to breaking from the traditional two-semester system, but Sexton said it has now become “part of the norm.”
He said the school works hard to make sure all resources, classes and professors are the same in each trimester so students “don’t feel cheated.”
Although BYU-Idaho is a very different school from public universities in the Big Ten, Sexton said he believes state schools will begin to switch over to the three-semester system.
With a trimester calendar, facilities and resources would be used all year long, a cost-efficient approach for schools, Sexton said.
“I think a lot of state legislatures are going to start looking at this and say ‘we’ve got to get some return on this investment during the summer months, we can’t just leave an asset idle.’”
Implementing a three-semester system similar to BYU-Idaho may be tricky for large public research universities.
Some professors conduct research and scholarly work in the summer, making it difficult to teach classes.
It’s unclear whether or not the University would adopt a similar system of assigning semesters to students. However, due to the popularity of seasonal intercollegiate athletics — something BYU-Idaho doesn’t have — the idea could prove difficult to catch on.
The University is also looking at issues dealing with financial aid and scholarships. About 82 percent of University undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid, according to the Office of Institutional Research.
Most federal financial aid is distributed on a two-semester basis, so students considering a full-year course load may not be able to get aid for the whole year. Also, due to budget cuts, Pell Grants are not available for summer terms, said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.
In an email, McMaster said the University would need to come up with new financial aid models to redistribute existing funds into three terms. This would likely include a “repackaging” of federal and state grants, as well as University scholarships and loans.
Since many students rely on the summer months to work full or part time to fund college costs, many may be wary to sign up for summer courses.
Neuroscience sophomore Tricia Wagner said she spends her summers working a full-time job in order to pay her rent throughout the school year.
Although she would consider taking on a full course load during one summer, she said she’s more likely to seek internship opportunities later in her college career.
“Summer is a good time to catch up on work and make money,” she said. “It’s also a good time to take a break from classes and find volunteer or internship opportunities to build my résumé.”
At BYU-Idaho, Sexton said students who go to class in the summer semester find it easy to get internships in the fall or spring. Since most students throughout the country are looking for internships in the summer, BYU-Idaho students have little competition for internships the rest of the year.
BYU-Idaho’s accounting students are especially at an advantage, Sexton said. Students who attend class in the summer and take the winter semester off are easily able to find internships at accounting firms during tax season.
Students in the two CDes pilot programs will also get this opportunity. Fisher said CDes students can choose to take classes in two of the three terms and look for internships in their “off semester.”
“We believe it will expand the opportunities for those students who still want to go to school four years but may want to have a different time off than the summer,” he said.
Trimester in the Big Ten
Like the University of Minnesota, Purdue University is considering the pros and cons of a year-round calendar.
Purdue Associate Vice Provost Frank Dooley said the first step is to expand summer options for students.
Last summer, Purdue offered roughly 20 courses to undergraduates, but this summer there will be about 290, he said. Pending approval, Purdue will likely begin to offer students two seven-week “mini terms” in the summer where students can take six to nine credits each term.
Dooley said it might take two to three years before the mini-sessions are fully implemented.
“We’re looking at this very, very carefully, and my gut tells me that we will do this before we start doing trimesters,” he said.
In order to switch to a trimester system, officials at Purdue say 180,000 credit hours must be taught in a summer. Last summer, there were about 30,000 credit hours, Dooley said, while this summer Purdue hopes to add about 7,000 credit hours with the increased course offerings.
“By changing the calendar, we’re hoping that we can demonstrate that students will show up,” Dooley said. “If students don’t show up in the summer, I think we still have a better calendar than we do right now.”
Fisher said the College of Design is allotting three years to test the summer curriculum because it will take time to generate
“This is a big change,” he said. “We have such an ingrained pattern of two terms of school and summer term off that changing it may take some time.”
For now, McMaster said the University will continue to expand summer curriculum and work out system issues. One step is to partially standardize the current summer calendar to a seven-week term that begins and ends on the same day.
Another goal is to offer summer courses in each liberal education program and to add more online classes to accommodate students living off campus in the summer.
“Our plan is to continue looking at some of the thorny issues over the next year and reassess the status in a few years,” McMaster said.
“I am hoping that we might find a few additional pilots.”