Students at Otterbein University always light a campus Christmas tree. In 2011, for the first time, they did so in December.
This is Otterbein’s first academic year on a semester calendar, replacing a quarter system in which students left campus before Thanksgiving and didn’t return until after the New Year. The private college in Ohio is part of a local and national trend as institutions shed quarter-based systems for semesters in hopes of encouraging transfers and increasing internship and study abroad opportunities. The transition has gone smoothly at Otterbein, and officials are confident students will graduate on time without paying more in tuition.
In the semesters vs. quarters competition, semesters have long had a wide lead. But a recent stream of conversions is widening that gap and making quarters an increasing rarity.
As the state’s public colleges carry out a request by the University System of Ohio to create a common calendar, Otterbein's advice is in demand at places like Wright State University, where music professor Herbert Dregalla Jr., was appointed director of the semester conversion process.
Dregalla’s campus in Dayton will switch to semesters in August, joining the state’s other public colleges that were asked by the University System of Ohio to create a common calendar. In addition to Wright State, five other Ohio public institutions will transition in the fall. All other Buckeye State publics already use semesters.
At Otterbein, Wright State and elsewhere, a set of common concerns emerged early in the process. Will the semesters increase student cost? Will they delay graduation? How will professors redesign courses?
Dregalla said the conversion affects about every aspect of campus life from the obvious (converting credits from quarters to semesters) to the obscure (issuing parking passes). “The whole process is a mammoth undertaking,” Dregalla said. “I don’t think you’re ever ready to make that change.”
But the trends were such that Wright State decided it needed its academic calendar to match what is increasingly the status quo in higher education. Dregalla worried that students lost out on internships or jobs because they were entering the workforce a month later than their peers at other colleges.
According to data provided by the National Association of College Stores, a trade group for campus bookstores, 71.2 percent of the 4,373 institutions it surveyed last fall were on a semester calendar. Only 14.7 percent of colleges used quarters. Other institutions use trimesters and other less common schedules.
While NACS doesn’t have data for previous years, the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers tracked the use of the semester calendar between 1990 and 2001. That study found the percentage of institutions using a semester calendar increased from 62 percent to 70 percent in those 11 years. Though the rate of growth slowed over the past decade, NACS’s data suggests the trend continued even before the current wave.
Switching is a difficult, multiyear process that provides a virtual guarantee of dissent within a college’s faculty and student body. Rochester Institute of Technology administrators found that out when they decided last year to start using semesters in fall 2013.
While the student senate voted unanimously in favor, the plan wasn’t without detractors  who worried about compromising rigor or breaking with tradition. That’s to be expected at an institution of RIT’s size, Provost Jeremy Haefner said. And though the quarters had their merits, Haefner said semesters allow for a more flexible schedule without sacrificing rigor. “If a student gets sick and has to miss a class in a quarter system, it’s very, very challenging for that student to catch up,” Haefner said. “In a semester system, it’s a little more forgiving.”
Even as more institutions move toward semesters, the quarter system still has its loyalists. Northwestern University has had discussions about changing to semesters over the years, a spokesman said, but always decides to stick with quarters. At Dartmouth College, Provost Carol Folt said, the quarter system is ideal.
Dartmouth asks its students to spend one summer on campus and one term during the academic year off campus, often on an internship or study abroad trip. The disadvantages in finding jobs or internships other colleges cite when switching to semesters haven’t been an issue at Dartmouth, Folt said.
But at Wright State, which depends on community colleges to provide some of its students, it was problematic when the university's quarters didn’t line up with the two-year college’s semesters.
The transferability issued prompted a similar discussion on the California State University at Los Angeles campus, Provost Ashish Vaidya said. The university’s joint senate of deans, students and faculty voted to recommend a switch to semesters, and the campus president approved it. Now they’re waiting for permission from the university system’s chancellor to make the change that would align them with 17 of Cal State's 23 campuses.
When and if they receive the go-ahead, Vaidya said, the campus would take two to four years to complete the transition. Unlike Otterbein, which revamped its curriculum during the transition, Cal State Los Angeles would convert its current programs to the semester system.
While that change would present an up-front cost to the cash-strapped Cal State system, Vaidya said long-term savings are possible.
“Having been in both systems, I can just attest to the wear and tear on human resources (in quarters),” Vaidya said. “The three-time turnaround and just getting folks geared up on a regular basis – those are some real costs that are hard to quantify.”
But like most other colleges making the change, it’s the perceived handicap of having a calendar out of line with other institutions that is driving the process at Cal State Los Angeles.
“It’s a matter of what is in the best interests of our students,” Vaidya said. “We’re out of alignment with high schools and community colleges. We end later in June when jobs have disappeared. It puts our students at a disadvantage.”