Breaking the Tyranny of the Academic Calendar

Higher education in the United States is measured in units of time: three-credit courses, 15-week semesters, and academic years with fall and spring semesters.

The decision by the Education Department on Tuesday to clarify its rules and outline a process for providing federal aid to students enrolled in “competency-based” programs has potentially far-reaching consequences beyond just rethinking how colleges award credits based on what students actually know instead of time spent in a seat. It might mark the beginning of reimagining the entire academic calendar and providing much-needed flexibility for students to pursue opportunities outside of standard courses that help shape their undergraduate lives.

For now, the Education Department’s decision provides a lift to three traditional universities starting competency-based degree programs this year: Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin system, and Southern New Hampshire University. In all three cases, the competency-based degrees are niche programs aimed at working adults, separate from the institutions’ undergraduate programs, which still base their credits on seat time.

But imagine an approach that allows traditional undergraduates to mix and match the two systems, moving seamlessly through courses where they know the material and focusing their time on courses where they don’t.

Breaking free from the tyranny of the academic calendar would allow students to take advantage of study abroad, apprenticeships, undergraduate research, and other experiences that colleges repeatedly say they value but give little time in a structured degree program for students to pursue.

Already a few campuses are experimenting with shorter semesters interspersed with traditional 15-week semesters. Arizona State University, for instance, has increased its share of 7½-week courses to provide an option for students who have finished shorter online courses and would otherwise have to wait until the next semester if they wanted to take a face-to-face course.

The shorter semester also helps remedial students at Arizona State who are using adaptive-learning software to complete work at their own pace. When I visited the Tempe campus, in the middle of October, about half the students in the remedial mathematics class I saw had already completed the course. Some of those students filled out the remaining time in the fall semester with a 7½-week course. Given that the typical college classroom is used only 40 percent of the time, squeezing in more courses also helps reduce costs.

In competency-based programs, student learning is assessed through tests, portfolios, clinical observations, and other measurements of knowledge. Of course, mixing and matching that system with one based on seat time would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, unless the two sides agreed on common outcomes.

“If we all work from common outcomes,” says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, “we won’t have to care where or how students addressed those outcomes as long as they are well developed, agreed upon, and backed with rigorous assessments.”

His team is already exploring an outcome-based system that would allow students to move from the competency-based program to the university’s traditional 16-week semester to its eight-week online format as they needed or desired.

The guidance the Education Department issued on Tuesday doesn’t allow such mixing and matching, at least for now. But if that day comes, we can begin rethinking the traditional calendar in such a way that has real potential to benefit students, improve learning, and  reduce costs.

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