Cal State joins national trend to switch to 15-week semesters

March 24, 2016

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At Cal State Los Angeles, a mainly commuter campus in the hills east of downtown, the winter quarter is ending – likely forever.

The 25,000-student university is joining a Cal State system and national trend to abandon the quarter term calendar, with its three speedy terms a year of 10 weeks each. In its place, it is adopting the less hectic system of two 15-week-long semesters a year.

The Los Angeles campus and its sister Cal State in Bakersfield are making the change this fall. Similar switches are expected to follow over the next four years or so at the four other Cal States remaining on quarters – East Bay, Pomona, San Bernardino and San Luis Obispo. The change is aimed at creating a unified time system across the CSU, since its other 17 campuses long have been on semester calendars.

The change is controversial, complicated and expensive – at least $40 million for all six campuses. But backers insist it will bring educational benefits, particularly to the many students who are in the first generation in their families to attend college and to the many who are placed in remedial or developmental courses at Cal State campuses. For them, educators say, the quarters move too quickly. The semester system, proponents contend, will allow students more time to master course material and to get to know professors better. Officials hope it ultimately will improve retention and graduation rates.

Melina Madrigal, a third-year social work student at Cal State Los Angeles, said she is looking forward to the conversion. With quarters, “midterms come too fast and then the finals. Everything goes too fast,” she said during a lunch on a campus patio. That pace is especially tough for the many students like her who also work 40 hours a week off campus, in her case at a McDonald’s restaurant. “Semesters would be better for us,” she said. “We would have more time to study.”

“You’ve got all the kinds of social, financial, emotional as well as intellectual challenges to adjust to in the university. Then it’s a big shock when you get into this fast-paced 10-week period.” – Rennie B. Schoepflin, Cal State Los Angeles history professor who is its director of the semester conversion effort

In addition, the change to the semester schedule will make it easier for students to transfer from community colleges, almost all of which are on semester calendars, and from one Cal State to another, officials said. Semesters align better too with many internship schedules. And the semester system reduces the hassles and expenses of three registrations, course catalogs, report cards, financial aid packages and book purchases a year.

For CSU, the quarter system “created some inefficiencies,” explained Rennie B. Schoepflin, the Cal State Los Angeles history professor who is its director of the semester conversion effort.

Most important, he said the change will help Cal State L.A. students, 82 percent of whom are first generation, many from Latino and Asian immigrant families. Many freshmen struggle with the unforgiving pace of quarters.


Cal State L.A. campus

About 20 percent of Cal State L.A. students do not return after their first year, and just 45 percent of entrants graduate in six years, campus statistics show.

“You’ve got all the kinds of social, financial, emotional as well as intellectual challenges to adjust to in the university. Then it’s a big shock when you get into this fast-paced 10-week period,” Schoepflin said. “It takes a week to get your bearings. Second week you recognize you had better pay attention. Third week you can be a week behind. You can be lost at midterms and you get an F at that first exam. And then what?”

(Eight of the University of California’s 10 campuses are quarter holdouts. At UC, where incoming students generally have stronger high school academic records than Cal State students, faculty say quarters allow them to teach more specialized courses and that it is easier for them to take a quarter off for research than to  miss an entire semester. Only Berkeley and Merced are on semesters, and no change is expected at the others, officials say.)

The semester calendar doesn’t guarantee success but provides “more time for them to catch up and get the help they need,” Schoepflin said. His campus adopted the quarter calendar in 1967, when colleges were making room for an influx of Baby Boom college students.

Credit: Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

Cal State East Bay student government leader Janeesha Jones supports the switch to semesters.

Making the change will cost about $7 million at his campus for such things as a revamped computer systems and student records, increased counseling and changes in faculty assignments, he said.

Still, the quarter system has its fans. It allows students to take a wider variety of classes – often 12 courses a year versus 10 during semesters. If a course proves to be a turkey, students get through it faster. Boosters say the schedule better prepares students for the workplace, where procrastination isn’t tolerated.

“The quarter system makes you more efficient. You can’t drag your feet on assignments,” said Cal State junior Mitchell Tran, a biology major. “For high school students who struggle, it’s a good adjustment for them. Growing up we have to adjust, and this is one of those adjustments you have to make.”

Those in the sciences and engineering tend to like quarters’ speed in getting through required courses. That is partly why many faculty and students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tried to rebel against the Cal State system’s pressure to switch by 2020. In a 2012 survey at that campus, one student wrote: “The semester system is an unrealistic model of the real world . … It allows time for slacking and gives students the chance to develop poor study habits.”

Besides, opponents argue, any benefits would not be worth the estimated $18 million cost at San Luis Obispo.

Interviews and documents indicate that $40 million is a rough baseline for possible system-wide costs. But Cal State System spokeswoman Toni Molle said there is no solid estimate yet, and she cautioned that expenses will include curriculum changes not tied to semesters but introduced simultaneously.

Cal State system officials say the San Luis Obispo change will happen although timing remains under discussion.   Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State East Bay are set to convert in 2018, with San Bernardino and SLO later.

Certainly, SLO swims against the academic tide. Federal  statistics show that only 12 percent of 2,340 U.S. four-year public and not-for-profit colleges and universities were fully on the quarter calendar in 1994; that dropped to just 6 percent by 2014. A small number of colleges use various other schedules.

The Ohio State University system, which enrolls 66,000, switched from quarters to semesters in 2012 after much debate and more than $12 million in costs. Registrar Brad A. Myers said it is not clear whether the change aided a recent 2 percent uptick in freshmen retention rates. Still, he said it appears to bolster learning since “there is a little more time to allow things to sink in.”

Academics bemoan the lack of a wide-ranging national study comparing student outcomes between the calendars. A planning report at Rochester Institute of Technology, which switched to semesters in 2013, said claims for improvement seem “sensible and intuitive” but “hypothetical” until such a comprehensive survey is done.


Cal State East Bay campus

Conversion planning is underway at CSU East Bay, which enrolls 15,000 at its main campus above the San Francisco Bay in Hayward and two satellite facilities.

Janeesha Jones, an East Bay business major who is a student government vice president, said she has seen first-generation students like her without family experience of college life drop out as freshmen in part because of the fast schedule.  In addition, being on a semester calendar will make it easier to apply for internships since spring semesters usually finish in May while East Bay’s spring quarter ends in June. “It’s going to be good to be on the same system as everyone else,” she said.

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