By 2011, Florida's eleven public universities are expected to enroll an additional 65,000 students each year. In a state that guarantees substantial financial awards  to those who perform well in high school and on placement exams, finding space for such students is proving to be quite the obstacle.
In addition to looking for more legislative dollars to build physical spaces, Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state's public universities, is looking toward one place with some underutilized space: the calendar -- and its summer months. He’s advocating a year-round system for public universities that he estimates could serve 30,000 more students each summer, thus alleviating crowding in the fall, winter and spring months.
Thousands of students already attend summer courses at Florida’s public universities, but Rosenberg argues that core classes could be offered more systematically (translation: fewer courses with the greatest possible number of students enrolled). He also believes that giving students a summer option would allow more to complete their degrees on time and that facilities will be better utilized, since many are already open to students in the summer months.
“Our challenge is to expand summer services in an efficient manner,” says Rosenberg. “The leadership at [our universities] must be willing to consider offering more robust summer offerings.” Currently, it's largely left to departments and campuses to decide which courses will be offered, employing faculty members who want to teach and earn extra money.
The Florida Board of Governors is scheduled to consider the chancellor’s idea – which has received some support from top university leaders in the state – in August.
College officials who’ve already toiled in this arena say that Rosenberg would be wise to expect challenges on multiple fronts. Faculty members, financial aid experts and even parents have helped quash initiatives at some universities. Meanwhile, Dartmouth College, which has offered a year-round calendar since the 1970s, has faced what its provost calls “stressful” scheduling issues.
A couple of years ago, George Washington University considered making the move to year-round scheduling with its president, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, arguing its merits  before the U.S. Senate. He said that by using college facilities year round, there would be less competition for housing and classes; more income for the university; and lower tuition for students.
The idea was tabled, however, after GW’s Faculty Senate voted unanimously that the institution shouldn’t pursue the route, with concerns about their ability to conduct research being one of their main arguments. While GW offers summer courses, professors are not required to offer them and many opt to focus on research.
Parents and students also told GW administrators that such a schedule would limit students’ ability to travel, work and participate in internships during the summer months.
“Our sense was that other universities weren’t running to do this,” recalls Don Lehman, executive vice president for academic affairs at GW. “The cons just ended up outweighing the benefits."
Even Dartmouth College, which initiated a year-round system decades ago in part to alleviate campus crowding resulting from going co-educational, has seen its share of challenges. “If you’re going to increase your student body, sooner or later, you’re going to have to add faculty -- and space for that faculty,” says Barry Scherr, provost of Dartmouth.
Scherr also says that it can be difficult to ensure that enough students are available to take classes in certain terms. If a large cohort took chemistry in the summer, for instance, there may not be enough students taking the course in a fall or winter term and thus fewer professors would be needed to teach. “It’s a balancing act,” says the provost.
Federal student aid in the context of a year-round calendar system is another issue of concern, since the federal system is based on a yearly calendar. That is, if a student uses up all available Pell Grant or other federal aid in his or her fall and spring terms, there may not be money left over for summer enrollment need. Larry Zaglaniczny, director of Congressional relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says that federal law must be changed in order to provide “a seamless delivery system of financial aid,” especially for the students with most need.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, thinks that the Florida plan is a “terrific idea” because it could provide more educational opportunities to students. “As enrollment grows exponentially in many states, the need to provide more educational opportunities is paramount,” he says. “This is a logical and appropriate step for states to be thinking about. It’s really time for the higher education world to take a serious look at this.”
Hartle says that professorial concerns can be addressed by ensuring that faculty member leaves are spread out, and that academics don’t feel like their scholarship is being shortchanged. He says that the biggest cost will involve hiring more faculty members.
In terms of financial issues, Rosenberg says his mind is currently focused on the Florida Legislature. If the Florida Board of Governors votes in favor of his plan, his next step will be to ask the legislative body for a yet undisclosed amount of money for a test program at one public university that would offer a true year-round curriculum. The pilot would allow officials to plan the logistics of such a model, as well as determine student interest and impact on faculty members.
“They’re very interested in retention and graduation rates,” Rosenberg says of the legislature. “And I think this will be a very helpful and popular way to achieve those goals.”