I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. Greetings from New Orleans, where I’m now in the thick of Jobs for the Future’s annual Horizons conference. I’ll share the news from that soon. Meanwhile, this week I report on how shorter semesters and competency-based education may be helping colleges stave off enrollment declines.

Two ideas that just might keep students enrolling.

No end is in sight for the downward slide in college enrollment. Yet some colleges that have leaned into one or two less-traditional models — shorter semesters and competency-based education — say those approaches have helped them defy the trend.

I’m always hesitant to declare success based on anecdotal evidence. Still, I see value in highlighting examples that appear to be working. And I hope my reporting prompts others to dig deeper and produce more data and studies that will give a fuller picture of the impact. Like, how about tracking the adoption or prevalence of shorter semesters nationally? I’d love to see some good numbers on that.

Folks at Achieving the Dream pointed out to me a few months ago that shorter semesters were helping some of its member colleges keep enrollment from tanking. While the format is hardly new, “certainly more” institutions have moved in that direction during the pandemic, said Monica Parrish Trent, the organization’s vice president for network engagement.

Students often leave college in the midst of a 15-week semester, because “life happens,” Trent told me. With shorter terms, she said, “it’s easier to hang on.” And that’s one reason many degree programs tailored to returning-adult students use the shorter-semester format. The widespread uncertainty that hit in March 2020 made shorter semesters generally more attractive than traditional ones. The prospect of a shorter term can make it easier for students to decide to enroll, even if they’re unsure of their work schedules or personal circumstances (the same goes for shorter-duration programs, which also seem to have fared well in the last two years). And the appeal is there for different student populations at various institutions.

But shorter semesters require more intentional course design, which falls mostly to faculty members. “It’s work,” Trent acknowledged. But recent improvements in learning-management systems and other classroom technologies, she said, can at least help professors keep track of students’ access to course materials and their progress.

As conditions normalize — or maybe more accurately, even as Covid wanes as a crisis — the trend won’t be just a blip, Trent believes. “It will absolutely last,” she predicted.

That’s definitely the case for a couple of colleges I spoke with this spring. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, for example, began converting nearly all of its courses to what it calls the 8-Week Advantage format in the summer of 2020. Over the next academic year, it found not only that students were earning higher grades in the shorter-term classes, but that the courses also had lower withdrawal rates (4.1 percent) than did those running for 15 weeks (6.7 percent). And going from fall 2021 into spring 2022, the persistence rate for students in successive short semesters was higher than for those enrolled in traditional long-semester courses.

Amarillo College is also set on short semesters. Inspired by the flexible scheduling model at Odessa College, it began the transition in 2017, and when the pandemic hit, Amarillo — which is also a national model for wraparound services — didn’t experience the same steep drops in enrollment as many of its peers. But the main reason it’s sticking with the new calendar is that officials there have found that it helps students graduate. “The data was just compelling,” Tamara Clunis, vice president for academic affairs, told me. Along the way, the college has learned a few lessons. Build in one-week breaks between the eight-week sessions, “to allow faculty to catch their breath, and students, too,” she said. When students take two courses in one eight-week term, encourage them to pair a rigorous one with another that is less so. And a master schedule of the course sequences that students must follow to progress is critical to “avoiding nightmare on eight-week street,” Clunis added. Without that, she said, “you’ll have a train wreck.” This month Amarillo is hosting its second annual conference on accelerated learning, and more than two dozen colleges are expected to participate.

During the pandemic, colleges offering competency-based programs also reported enrollment resilience. One survey of colleges offering that learning format — conducted by the American Institutes for Research from the spring to the late fall of 2020 — found that many institutions’ enrollments stayed steady or even grew. One reason: Some students saw the disruption to their working lives as an opportunity “to load up and accelerate” their academics, said Kelle Parsons, the senior researcher at AIR who conducted the survey. And competency-based students whose circumstances halted their studies during the pandemic, such as caregivers and health-care workers who were on extra duty, she said, didn’t have to formally withdraw from or fail a course, because the format wasn’t time-bound. As one survey respondent put it: Competency-based education, or CBE, was “resilient” because it allowed students “to continue their education in a flexible, self-paced manner.”

I’m still not ready to say short semesters or CBE is the way forward. And AIR doesn’t have another study in the works right now, but Parsons told me she’d love to explore in future surveys how those two approaches affect enrollment. In the meantime, at least one institution, Nicolet College, in Wisconsin, just made a $2.2-million bet on CBE. In April it opened a new manufacturing lab for its competency-based programs in welding, electromechanical technology, and other hands-on fields.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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