WASHINGTON – College is supposed to be the best four years of your life,but if more colleges adopt a year-round calendar,those best years could be cut to three.
Sen. Lamar Alexander,R-Tenn.,chaired a discussion about the “advantages and impediments” of colleges and universities adopting a year-round academic calendar at a Senate hearing Tuesday. Alexander said that,with Congress working on the Higher Education Reauthorization bill,the issue should be addressed.
“Colleges are changing their traditional schedules because their customers are increasingly not traditional,” Alexander said. He added that the average age of the undergraduate student today is 26.
A calendar with two semesters and a short summer session is in place at 80 percent of colleges and universities nationwide,according to the University of Minnesota Web site. The school went from quarters to semesters in fall 1998.
Encouraging more students to attend school year round could allow them to graduate sooner or complete internships,work or travel other than during the summer.
One of the biggest problems with the year-round calendar is that Pell Grants and other federal funds are available for use only nine months of the year,leaving those who take classes in the fall,winter and spring without financial aid if they take summer courses. Some witnesses at the hearing proposed 12-month Pell Grants and federal loans.
“Year-round aid might result in some colleges forcing students to take summer classes and graduate early because it looks better statistically,” said India McKinney,a senior at Vanderbilt University. “Creating the opportunity for some students to take classes in the summer would be beneficial to many students,as long as summer classes remain a choice and not an obligation.”
Alexander pointed out that “state governments are having a hard time providing public universities with the money they need. The federal government is trying to be as generous as it can with Pell Grants and loans,but it can't cover everything.”
The largest annual Pell Grant is $4,050,which breaks down to $1,350 per term and totals $16,200 over four years. But if a student attended a year-round college for three years and received $1,350 per term,that student would also receive $16,200 – just over a shorter time.
“They don't have the flexibility to pursue their college careers unless the federal government helps them,” said Michael Lomax,president of Dillard University in New Orleans.
“We'd accommodate demand for higher education all year,” said Stephen Trachtenberg,president of George Washington University. “At GW,we could increase our enrollment by at least a thousand students,yet have fewer students on campus at any one time.”
At Trachtenberg's campus,which is adjacent to the White House,students interviewed Tuesday after the hearing had mixed opinions.
Junior Jennifer Lawrence,of Albany,N.Y.,said she wouldn't want to switch to a year-round calendar and that Trachtenberg is “just interested in the money.”
“I can take classes at a state school in the summer for less money,and I enjoy the break from school,” Lawrence said. “It's hard – I do an internship and have a job right now in addition to going to school.”
Lawrence receives financial aid,but even if funds were made available to students year-round,she wouldn't want the semester system to change.
“I'm staying for summer classes anyway,” said Mary Lague,a sophomore international affairs major from Wrentham,Mass.,who will take one class at GW and work over the summer. “A lot of students wouldn't be able to stay the summer without financial aid.”
“Sure,it's beneficial to those who want to finish sooner. Personally,it doesn't bother me either way,” said sophomore communications major Sarah Leen,of Atlanta,as she joked that she doesn't really have a summer vacation anyway.
Dartmouth,the ninth oldest college in the United States,uses the “Dartmouth Plan.” The college's academic schedule,implemented in 1972,consists of four 10-week academic terms – fall,winter,spring and summer.
Virginia Hazen,Dartmouth's director of financial aid,said at the hearing that the greatest advantage of the year-round calendar is the freedom it allows students to meet their academic,personal and professional needs.
The plan requires that students be in residence during the fall,winter and spring quarters of their freshman and senior years and the summer between their sophomore and junior years. Otherwise,they can choose which terms to attend.
But the plan is not perfect,Hazen admitted.
“Down time for planning is very limited,and financial aid funding and administration can be problematic,” Hazen said. With buildings constantly in use,maintaining them can be difficult.
But dealing with these problems might be easier than trying to accommodate the expected increase of college applicants in the next few years. The University of California system expects a 43 percent increase by 2010,which is an additional 60,000 undergraduate students.
Margaret Heisel,executive director of admissions and outreach,said UC is in favor of a year-round calendar to help “in terms of increased capacity,academic continuity,cost-effectiveness and retention and persistence rates.”
“Truly needy students cannot take advantage of this option without federal financial aid,” Heisel said,as she endorsed the 12-month Pell Grant. “As they accelerate their academic program,they can accelerate their Pell Grant as well.”