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Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones.

Like most community colleges, Brookdale is working on improving student success. It’s making progress, despite some demographic headwinds. Too often, though, the conversation stops when we start looking at the various external factors over which a college has no control: national and state politics; local birthrates 18 years ago; other colleges becoming more aggressive in recruiting.  

I’m wondering if something over which we have control might help. What if we went to 8 week semesters?

It could help in some pretty straightforward ways. 

At a really basic level, it would reduce the number of courses that a full-time student would be taking at any given moment. Let’s say that the year is divided into six two-month semesters. (I’m rounding; the units might be 7 ½ weeks, and I don’t propose to mess with Christmas. But for simplicity, let’s just go with this for now.) If a student took classes for five of those six two-month blocs, she could do 30 credits per year -- real full-time status -- by only doing six credits at a time. Typically, that would be two classes. 

The classes would meet more hours per week, but for fewer weeks, and students would only take one or two at a time. They wouldn’t divide their attention among four or five classes, like they do now.  They could focus.

In my own teaching days, the single best class I ever taught was a six-week summer session that met four days per week. It was wonderful, precisely because it was so intense. The students got to know each other, we could follow up on discussions immediately, and for a while, they ate, slept, and breathed my class. They didn’t have time to do much else.  

It’s not unusual for a community college student to have two jobs and one kid. Two jobs plus one kid plus five classes equals eight things to manage. Two jobs plus one kid plus two classes equals five things to manage. Five things are easier than eight things.

In a setting with students who live on campus full-time and don’t do anything other than studenting, there may be an argument for the traditional semester. Students need to learn to multitask. But in a community college, they’re already multitasking.  If anything, they need to be able to focus. Fewer, shorter, more intense classes offer the possibility of increased focus.

A pattern of two classes at a time in 8 week chunks would also reduce the damage done when life gets in the way. In a traditional semester, if a student signs up for five classes that start in September and life happens in November, she walks away with nothing. She has to start over again from scratch. But in this format, she walks away with six credits from the Sept/Oct term; she doesn’t have to start from scratch. Wins come more quickly and more often.

From a faculty perspective, some of the same arguments would hold. For those willing to do a ten-month year, a full load would never have to exceed two classes at any given time. In some areas, it would even be less than that: an English professor teaching an ALP section, for instance, would have only the ALP section that term. That would be a full load all by itself. Yes, the grading turnaround would have to be faster, but the number of papers would be so much smaller that it wouldn’t be hard to manage.  

In a perfect world -- and I’ll admit I haven’t looked at the HR side of this -- I’d love to have faculty able to pick which two-month blocks they’d take as a break. Those with school-age kids would probably stick to July and August, so they’d be off when the kids are off.  But snowbirds might pick January and February. Someone to whom the major Jewish holidays are important might choose September and October. Whatever the choice, it would be a choice. That would be a dramatic change from current practice.

I know that some colleges have gone in this direction, and I’d love to hear from folks with experience with this model. I’ve already got some folks on campus doing research on it, but direct feedback from knowledgeable people on the ground provides valuable context. Does it help with student success?  How do faculty pace their year?  Are six starts-of-term per year too taxing on the admissions and registration staff? And how does financial aid work? For those who lived through a conversion, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?

I don’t expect that 8 week semesters would be a panacea, but I could imagine them doing considerable good at minimal cost. The academic calendar is one of the few things over which we have real control.  It looks intriguing from here.  Yes, there are details to be addressed, and those will involve working through details with local input. But at the conceptual level, wise and worldly readers, what do you think?


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