Trustees | Trusteeship

The Incredible Shrinking Semester: Paying More And Getting Less

FORBES   |  September 30, 2019 by Michael Poliakoff

Students were elated when the University of Wisconsin announced in 2017 that it was going to reduce the spring semester by four to five days, extending the winter break to January 23. Who can blame them for wanting to spend another week at home enjoying home-cooked meals and NFL playoff games on TV with old high school buddies? Don’t worry about another step to water down the education that now leaves the average American student $38,000 in debt. Even more troubling was the administration’s sheepish defense of the shortened schedule. The new semester system would be a predictable 69 days; the old system varied between 70 and 74 days, which, they claimed, posed too much instability. And under the old system, the fall semester occasionally began on a Friday. The horror!

The willingness to teach less, while demanding more money from households, is certainly not limited to Wisconsin. In fact, one of Wisconsin’s primary justifications was that the new system would put the University more in line with other institutions. (One must always follow the pack, right?)

Shrinking college calendars have escaped public scrutiny because they have eroded gradually and quietly. In fact, this trend that has been brewing for over a century. A study by the National Association of Scholars found that the average academic calendar in 1914 was 204 days long. Today, the average is in the 140 ball park. That’s over two months less class time for an exponentially higher price. A year’s tuition at Harvard University in 1915 cost about $3,800 in inflation-adjusted terms. Today, tuition is over $50,000. The shrunken academic calendar is even more shocking considering that summer breaks were implemented to accommodate the planting season. While a significant portion of the U.S. labor force was involved in agriculture in 1914, that figure is less than 2% today.  

So why are colleges so willing to chip away at their schedules—gradually shortening the semester from 16 to 14 weeks with ever-increasing breaks and “reading days”? (Meanwhile, Wellesley College has kept its term length steady—at 13 weeks.)

The shrinking academic calendar is one of many symptoms stemming from the commercialization of higher education. Students are increasingly viewed as customers, and the attitude that “the customer is always right” follows naturally. By shortening semesters, colleges prioritize student preferences over academics. And weakening academic standards is often the path of least resistance: Colleges have discovered that it is easier to court student popularity than to uphold professional ethics. Administrators are unlikely to receive push back from faculty, either. Professors will happily teach less for the same pay, leaving more time for research, travel, and personal development.

But when what students want at age 18 is not the same as what will benefit them in adulthood, wouldn’t it be more than appropriate for colleges to act in loco parentis, maintaining what is best for students, rather than gratifying wishes they will one day regret?

To be sure, there are legitimate debates about term length that deserve consideration. Some have argued that quarter or trimester systems present information in more manageable doses to students. Schools like Colorado College have gone as far as moving to four-week terms during which students intensively study one course at a time.

Yet with longer winter, spring, and summer breaks, combined with a sprinkling of small breaks during the semester, the education pie is not cut into more slices, it is shrinking. Colleges are ignoring return on investment for their students, and are in turn failing to ensure that they get the most out of their education for the money spent. 

Viewed in isolation, the shortened academic calendar may not seem scandal-worthy. Yet it is one of many ways in which colleges squander resources, fail to challenge students, and continually ignore the fact that they have a real responsibility to teach, not just issue degrees.

In the wake of new proposals to fund higher education more completely with public money, colleges’ lax attitudes about demanding class time should, to use Lincoln’s words, “stink in the nostrils of the nation.” No public K-12 system could get away with whittling down its calendar to 38% of the year (as the University of Wisconsin did with little controversy). So why should families foot the bill when colleges are so happy to do so little?


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