When the University of Chicago opened as an upstart player on the higher-education scene some 120 years ago, it opted for a quarter-system calendar. It figured it would have a better chance of enticing academically minded students to pick up and transfer if it offered them four start times a year.
In 2008, Rio Salado College, a modern-day educational pioneer, took that notion of a more-flexible academic calendar and stretched it about as far as it could go. With an eye toward students looking to pick up a course or two that they couldn't get at their home colleges, the Arizona college now offers 48 semester start times a year.
Different era. Different kinds of institutions. Different motivations.
Yet what worked in the 19th century as a tool for educational innovation—the rethinking of the academic calendar—is even more relevant today.
As colleges look to better serve students juggling family obligations and careers, respond to political leaders pressing for better student-completion rates, and create richer learning experiences, this low-tech approach to reinvention has become a crucial piece of their strategy. The approaches include semesters and summer terms with mini-sessions embedded within them, as now offered at Ohio State and Montclair State Universities, and a variation on the "block plan" at the University of Montana Western.
"We have recaptured an aboriginal approach to learning," says Robert C. Thomas, a professor of geology at Montana Western, a campus focused on experiential learning where students take one course at a time. Montana Western says it was the first public college in the country to adopt the block plan, in 2005-6. But, mindful that many of its students also sign on as hired hands at ranches during calving season or work on crews fighting late-summer fires, it keeps its calendar more flexible than those of some private block-plan institutions, like Colorado College and Cornell College. Students can fight fires in Block 1, "and they've got money to pay for their education in Blocks 2, 3, and 4," says Mr. Thomas.
For Rio Salado, a campus of the Maricopa Community College system that focuses on distance education, improving access was a prime motivation. Nearly half of its 41,000 online students attend other institutions and "just drop in" at Rio Salado from time to time to enroll in a math course or polish off a general-education requirement, says Kishia Brock, vice president for student affairs and advancement.
Rio Salado can pull off 48 starts a year because it relies on more than 1,500 adjunct instructors. (It has just 23 full-time faculty members.) The design and structure of its online courses allow some students to start a few weeks after others taking the same 16-week course. Instructors are trained to keep track of students at different stages of the course, but Rio Salado's flexibility doesn't stop there. Students can also opt for an eight-week calendar and complete two eight-week courses within the 16-week semester.
While improving access drove the calendar change, Ms. Brock says, Rio Salado is realizing additional benefits: With so many start times, it can spend more time with students before they start class to ensure they've received the proper academic and financial-aid advising, taken the necessary placement tests, and gone through an orientation.
At neighboring Arizona State University, a calendar change adopted last year and designed primarily to help the university better compete in the online-education market has also yielded some side benefits. ASU split its semester calendar into three sessions: A and B sessions, featuring intense courses that last seven and a half weeks each, and a C session, which runs the full 15 weeks. All courses offered in the online division last seven and a half weeks, but so, too, do some of ASU's face-to face classes now.
Arizona State adopted shorter terms for its online division because it saw that trend in the online-education world. (The three-credit courses at the for-profit University of Phoenix, for example, are concentrated into five weeks, and most students take one course at a time.)
Standardizing around the shorter terms also allowed ASU to have the same professors teach sections of the course simultaneously to ASU Online students and to those from the campus who elected to take the course in the online format. That is a helpful option for newer courses for which demand at ASU Online is not that high.
Elizabeth Phillips, the provost, says the new schedule has made it easier for students to take fuller course loads—for example, three in the A session and three in the B session.
No doubt the national push to ensure that more students finish college in a timely manner is driving many of the calendar changes, especially at colleges that emphasize year-round schedules.
The "completion agenda" has especially accelerated summer-session innovations, says Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The advent of more-robust software tools, too, has allowed scheduling improvements and made it easier to create more flexible calendars, he says.
But there are also factors that limit calendar flexibility, most notably federal financial-aid rules that require students to be enrolled for specified periods to qualify for Pell Grants and student loans. And the more complex the calendar, the harder it is to schedule classrooms, Mr. Reilly notes.
Still, experimentation continues. This past academic year, Ohio State (along with Wright State University and the University of Cincinnati) shifted from a quarter system to the semester calendar used by all other public colleges in Ohio, to better accommodate transfer students. But it added a twist. Each semester, and the summer session, is divided into mini-sessions, creating a total of nine terms during the year; the old calendar had just six.
This fall only about 13 percent of the 9,000-plus classes at Ohio State's main campus are being offered in mini-session, but the portion is expected to grow. Meanwhile a new "May Session" proved to be surprisingly popular. Some 9,000 students enrolled, 570 of them in courses offered abroad. Grace Landrum Johnson, director of study abroad, says the more-affordable May option attracted a broader pool of students, including more men, more-diverse majors, and more low-income students, than the semester-long programs.
Many colleges experiment with the calendar during their summer terms, but few have gone as far as New Jersey's Montclair State University. Since 2009, Montclair's summer term has featured courses that run for three, four, five, six, eight, and 15 weeks and allow students to easily mix or stack.
To promote the summer term, this past summer Montclair discounted its tuition by up to 17 percent, lowered the price of on-campus housing, and offered free parking. It also analyzed the courses that students had been most often shut out of during the academic year, and not only offered many of those courses during the summer but also e-mailed 4,000 students to let them know the courses would be available. The result: Montclair saw a 10-percent increase in the number of students taking six credits over the summer and a 20-percent increase in those taking nine credits.
That pays off in the long run, says Jamieson Bilella, associate dean for extended learning and special academic programs. Some 70 percent of Montclair students who graduate in four years use a summer term. The university also carved out a four-week slot in the calendar in late December to offer courses in a hybrid online and face-to-face format.
While experts say it's what happens in the classroom, and not the length of the course, that ultimately matters, Mr. Thomas, of Montana Western, says the intensity of the block plan has led to better teaching and learning at his institution—and better opportunities for students. Every year since 2006, for example, he's brought his "Environmental Field Studies" class to the upper portion of the Big Hole River, in southwestern Montana, where students spend the month studying the morphology of the waterway to see how a restoration plan is working.
"The students will be on the stream all day long," he says, observing whether it is still meandering and if the banks are firm and properly shaped, or if the riverbed has become too broad and shallow to keep the grayling (a kind of salmon) alive. The work goes into an annual report for federal and state wildlife agencies. "My students are walking out with portfolios for jobs and grad schools that are unparalleled," Mr. Thomas says.
He was among the faculty members who urged his institution to adopt the block plan. "We definitely needed a market niche," he says. It seems to be working. Since the block plan took effect, in 2005, enrollment has increased by 22 percent, to 1,411. Students take more ownership of their learning, says Mr. Thomas. Attendance is better, too, he says, recalling a former Block 2 student who spent a day "barfing his guts out on the river" in his effort to not miss the class.
Meanwhile, Colorado College, the original pioneer of the block plan, now offers several "extended format" courses, which last as long as a traditional semester. The format is used for courses like the student-led "Youth Empowerment," in which students work with juvenile-offender programs and other local agencies. Students needed more time to develop relationships and adjust their perceptions, says Manya Whitaker, an assistant professor of education, who oversees the class. The lesson: Even the experimenters see the need to keep on experimenting.
Correction (10/7/2013, 12:58 p.m.): This article originally misstated how many Ohio State students used the new May term for study abroad. The number is 570, not 5,000. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.