Many community college students have tight budgets. Now, it seems, they're feeling even more of a crunch from rising energy prices -- a problem for anyone with a car, but one that disproportionately affects students at commuter colleges who in many cases work part time or raise children in addition to taking classes.
A number of two-year colleges across the country with significant commuter populations -- especially in areas where public transportation isn't much of an option -- are beginning to experiment with reducing the length of their academic week from five to four days, mostly dropping Friday classes to save their students a round trip. So far, colleges are reporting success by increasing the length of class sessions and cramming more classes into the day. At the same time, the continued growth of distance learning has the potential to ease the pressure for students opting to take online or "hybrid" courses.
At least one community college dean, writing at Inside Higher Ed last year, described  the issues facing students who commute regularly to class at a time when energy and other costs are rising to prohibitive levels: "We cater to students who have to work part-time at low-paying jobs to get through school. As the low-tuition option, we attract the folks to whom low tuition is the most salient. Transportation is a major cost for our students. They often drive older cars of suspect reliability, and find themselves at the mercy of whatever repairs need to be made.... If the price of gas continues to climb substantially, eventually I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these students cut back, or drop out entirely."
Officials at Meridian Community College, in Mississippi, recently took steps in an attempt to prevent that outcome. The college decided this month to extend this summer's planned four-day academic week to the fall semester. While the college -- and student services such as libraries, support and cafeterias -- will remain open on a normal schedule, most classes will be held on either Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The extra day off will save the college's approximately 4,000 credit-earning students a round-trip commute, or at least free up an extra day for a part-time job. According to the institution's president, Scott Elliott, about 90 percent drive to and from class, and half of them live outside of Lauderdale County, where the college is located. He estimated that based on a 30-mile round-trip drive (which he said was probably lower than average), students would save at least $200 a semester, and even that's based on outdated gas prices, which continue to rise.
Elliott said he made the final decision to adopt a four-day academic week when he noticed a 16-cent rise in gas from one day to the next. “I thought to myself, here I am, a college president, and I’m blessed to have a well-paying job, therefore, and I’m feeling the crunch myself," he said. "We really need to make a move on this thing, and we don’t need to wait to do it.”
So far, Elliott expects to try the schedule for at least an academic year before evaluating how it worked through focus groups and surveys. He doesn't foresee any significant detrimental effects, he said, especially since other two-year colleges in Mississippi have adopted similar plans (such as Mississippi Delta Community College) and more are considering the change. "I wish I could tell you that I was a revolutionary, but I’m not," he said. “It’s a little bit of a trend that’s developing, and I think most are motivated for the same reasons that we have been.”
Colleges that have tried the approach for a while seem to be happy with the four-day week and plan to continue with that schedule. "It’s been very successful," said Janet Kincherlow-Martin, a spokeswoman at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala., describing the academic week that's been in place since the spring of 2006 . Since then, enrollment has continued to grow at record levels, and recruiters have used the four-day schedule as a selling point, she said -- which is especially attractive for students who drive in from Birmingham, to the south, or bordering counties in Tennessee to the north.
Besides helping students and even instructors who commute, colleges effectively get more uses out of their classrooms without building additional facilities. At Oklahoma's Rose State College, which switched to four-day weeks this spring semester, there's "all kinds of classroom availability now on Fridays," said Ric Baser, the vice president of academic affairs, and that's led to hybrid courses that have weekly in-class lectures on that day. Courses that previously were held for 60 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Friday are now 75 minutes long on Mondays and Wednesdays only.
The college has “no intention of going back,” Baser said.
If trends continue, more colleges may decide that realities will have to dictate the academic schedule, at least in part. Elliott says he fears that if energy prices -- and operating costs for the college -- continue to rise, he might have to take even more drastic measures: "I can see a day where you might have to just go to a four-day schedule, period" -- in which the entire college is shut down on Friday.