When the national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline peaked at more than $4 in July, a number of colleges and universities around the country were already experimenting with four-day -- or shorter -- workweeks to ease the load on their students’ pocketbooks. Even with gas prices down, some colleges are finding the programs -- first used by many campuses in the summer only -- are worth keeping for the rest of the year. But so far, students aren't flocking to a more crammed option that allows them to take a semester's worth of courses on only one day a week.
Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn. offered its students the opportunity to maintain full-time status by attending four general education courses that met in lengthy Friday-only sections. “Full Time Friday,” as the institution calls it, could have potentially kept an industrious student in class from 8 a.m. until nearly 10 p.m. at night -- a schedule one administrator called “not for the faint of heart” at the beginning of the semester.
As it turns out, most students taking advantage of this offering could not stomach 11-plus hours in the classroom. Of the 214 students enrolled in “Full Time Friday,” 102 enrolled in only one course. Only 11 students enrolled in the maximum of four courses. Though the college has not collected data to show the academic success of these students, it did report that 14 students dropped out of all their condensed courses, whether they were taking the minimum of one or the maximum of four. The lengthy courses were, apparently, more than some could handle.
“There was a misperception among some students that there was nothing special about these courses other than that they were being offered once a week,” said Bruce Scism, vice president of academic affairs at Volunteer State. “Some thought the classes would be easier because they met less often.”
To improve retention in the future, Scism added that the college could offer more counseling for students who decide to enroll in these courses. Still, data collected by the institution suggests those students who enrolled in more courses -- especially those who decided to take a full day’s worth of classes -- had higher academic credentials than those who took fewer courses. They had higher ACT scores and high school and community college grade point averages.
Students who took more than one class were also more likely to live farther away from the institution than those who took only one -- proof enough for some at the college that this offering successfully targeted students who did not want or could not afford to make multiple trips to campus. Regardless, those who came to campus less often had to spend a long Friday in the classroom.
“I had two cups of coffee before the first class and energy drinks throughout the day,” said Eric McGee, a Volunteer State student who took three Friday classes this semester. “It’s easier to commit to one day. It helps on gas and helps schedule for my job [at the campus bookstore].”
Most at the college -- including students like McGee -- were pleased with this first foray into alternative scheduling, Scism said, although there were a number of lessons learned. He noted that some students complained the breaks between classes were actually too long, saying that they would have rather finished up their class work and be done on campus. Additionally, he said the college’s cafeteria had been closing at the usual time, stranding some in later classes without an opportunity for dinner.
As the college waits for more detailed data to emerge from this scheduling experience, Scism said he hopes to see completion rates and grade points averages at least on par with the institution’s “traditional offerings.” Next semester the college will continue to offer only general education courses on the Friday-only schedule, electing not to expand the “Full Time Friday” offerings at least until next fall.
“I know fuel costs are not as high as they were when we first implemented this, and that was an element of it,” Scism said. “Still, I think it’s relevant. This [scheduling] is a viable tool to help increase access to education. The conclusion we’re coming to is that this is beneficial to students, and we’re sufficiently pleased to do it again.”
Missouri State University at West Plains, a two-year institution, beat a number of colleges to the punch when it adopted a four-day workweek in fall 2007 -- prior to the days of three-dollar-a-gallon gas and the spreading effects of the current economic downturn. Now, with three semesters of data under their belts, college officials indicate that the alternative schedule may be here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The first semester the college switched to the four-day workweek, it saw an 11 percent enrollment increase over the previous fall. This semester, it saw an additional 4 percent increase, bringing the college’s total headcount to 1,834. Not only did the introduction of the new schedule bring more students, but those students also enrolled in more credit hours. The college had a 15 percent increase in the number of credit hours taken by students in fall 2007 from the previous year and an additional 8 percent increase this year. This year, the number of full-time equivalent students at West Plains is 1224, up 90 students since it introduced the four-day week.
Drew Bennett, West Plains chancellor, said he believes these across-the-board increases in students served and credit hours taken are predominantly the result of this alternative scheduling. Though many community colleges have seen enrollment increases following the downturn in the economy, he points to the initial boost provided to the college in fall 2007, before the word “recession” had crossed the lips of many.
“This was done before three-dollar-a-gallon gas and when the economy went south,” Bennett said. “We’re in the 14th poorest Congressional district of the 435, and our state funds higher education 47th out of 50. A dollar to our students here matters more than it does elsewhere in the country. Anything we can do to reduce the cost of education and assist them is important to us. That was our motivation.”
A fall 2007 survey of 578 West Plains students showed that 80 percent of them preferred the new four-day scheduling, even though it has resulted in longer class sessions. Now, many students can take a full load of credits and only have to attend classes on campus two days a week, leaving more time for them to work or attend to other obligations.
“I’ve enjoyed the new schedule a lot better,” said Michael Harrington, a West Plains sophomore who works as a teller to save for his transfer to the University of Missouri and Columbia to pursue a business degree. “It makes for a long day, but it hasn’t affected my grades. It helps get [the class work] over faster.”
Other students echoed a similar sentiment but hinted that the long days in the classroom may be a double-edged sword.
“You’re tired by the end of the day, but it’s a small sacrifice,” said Kristin Herron, a West Plains sophomore who works as a political science tutor and a barista to save for her transfer to the state flagship to study occupational therapy. “My first semester, I went to class five days a week and remember dreading my Monday and Wednesday classes. Since we were only in there for 50 minutes, it was hard to get into the subject. Now, I think the schedule makes it easier for you to have more time.”
Some faculty members, however, argue that these lengthy classes -- while keeping the week short for students -- do not lend themselves equally to all disciplines. Judy Carr, West Plains Faculty Senate chair and psychology and sociology professor, said some professors felt as if they could do a better job instructing students three times a week and in shorter sessions. She suggested math was among those subjects that did not accommodate an hour-and-20-minute class.
Though the four-day week was never designed to give faculty Fridays off, Carr said it has freed up some time on that day for various meetings and appointments with students. The course load on full-time professors has not altered since the schedule change, she said, while noting that it is easy to forget just how long these classes are when scheduling. Her first semester teaching on the four-day week, Carr said she taught three classes in a row -- something she was accustomed to during the regular week -- but found herself stretched to her limit at the end of her daily round of classes.
“There can be some ideas out there that can be a bit harebrained,” Carr said of some alternative scheduling, but went on to note that the four-day week was by and large a success at West Plains. “We don’t want the McDonaldization or Wal-Martification of higher education. But, that’s not the case here. We’ve maintained our classroom integrity, no matter the deployment.”