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Study: In college, quarters are better than semesters

Most schools use a semester system, but a new study suggests that they should switch to quarters.

Image by Pham Trung Kien from Pixabay

Key Takeaways
  • American universities often use semester calendars, but many still use the quarter system.
  • Students at schools that switched to semesters from quarters got lower grades and took longer to graduate.
  • The higher number of concurrent classes may be the cause of students' woes.

An academic debate — “Are semesters or quarters better for college students?” — may finally have a definitive answer. A new study soon to be published in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy suggests that the semester system leads to difficulties that can add up to big costs for students.

A tale of two systems

American universities overwhelmingly use the semester system to organize their school year. That system typically consists of two terms per year, 15 weeks long, in which students take roughly 15 credit hours (that is, four or five classes per term). Classes are usually not taken in the summer months, which are free for vacation or work.

The quarter system, first used in the U.S. by the University of Chicago in 1891, typically consists of ten-week quarters. Students often take three or four classes per term, adding up to a similar number of credit hours as in the semester system. Like in the semester system, the summer term is optional.

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The semester system has always been the more popular of the two, though the quarter system did see a spike in popularity during the 1960s as colleges and universities switched to it to help cope with the influx of students at the time. In recent decades, the trend toward the semester system has become ever more prevalent. In 2019, 95 percent of four-year institutions in the United States used the semester system. In the last decade, the University System of Ohio converted from using quarters to semesters, and the University of California has discussed making a similar move.

Proponents of the semester calendar point to the extra time spent in each class as a benefit since difficult topics are covered for a few weeks longer than in the quarter system. Fans of the quarter system point to the lower number of concurrent classes, the ability to go year round (if a student so chooses), and the flexibility offered by shorter terms to students who wish to change majors.

When schools switch from quarters to semesters, commonly given reasons include the supposed benefits to learning and of synchronizing student schedules with other schools. This last factor can be important when students apply for internships or study abroad programs, which often cater to the needs of students at schools using semester based calendars.

Keep the quarters!

The new study, the first to directly compare the two systems, looked at graduation statistics for students entering college between 1991 and 2010 utilizing data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Special attention was paid to schools that switched between the systems during that time.

At schools that switched from quarters to semesters, a clear decline in the four-year graduation rate — from 3.7 to 5 percentage points — took place immediately after the switch and endured even after the students who first dealt with the change had graduated and left. The six-year graduation rate stayed the same, however, suggesting that these students weren’t dropping out.

The authors highlight this last point and muse that “the negative impact on student outcomes is not merely a short-term consequence of the calendar switch, but a longer-term effect likely driven by some characteristic of the semester calendar.”

A natural experiment in Ohio

Later, the researchers turned to data for 709,404 students at 37 campuses in Ohio between 1999 and 2015. Many of these schools were on a semester system at the start of the period covered and the rest switched in autumn of 2012. The researchers used the term by term data from each school to consider the effects on GPA and graduation rates caused by the changeovers.

The quarter-to-semester switch was associated with a drop in GPA. More concerning for students in need of a little help, the odds of falling below the 2.0 mark (on a 4.0 scale) rose by nearly 5 percent. This likely explains the spike in delayed graduation rates also seen in this data set. As with the previous national data, these effects endured for years after the students who had been in school during the changeover left.

The authors blame the higher number of classes per term in the semester system as one of the main causes.The higher class load leads to lower grades, and lower grades lead to extra semesters taken.

The study’s authors did not consider the effects of switching from semesters to quarters because there were too few examples from which to collect data.

The economic cost of semesters

Considering both the extra tuition fees as well as lost earnings, it costs the typical student $44,327.43 to attend a public university for an extra year. The authors calculate that if these costs are applied to 3.7 percent of students at the average sized university, then the switch to semesters costs at least $2 million per year.

To counter these costs, the authors suggest that universities switching to the semester system should consider improving schedule flexibility and providing more support to first-year students. They further encourage more studies on the differences in the systems, in the hope of finding the ideal way to organize higher education.


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