Benefits of Shortened Academic Terms
According to Achieving the Dream (ATD), Odessa College’s journey to shorter academic terms began with a conversation between its president and its faculty senate chair.
The two educators were considering whether the college’s standard 16-week semester had outlived its usefulness. Students were experiencing much more success with the shorter “flex” terms that the community college in Odessa, Texas, offered. Could the college, they wondered, replicate that format — and those outcomes — for all its students?
Based on this discussion, Odessa became one of the first community colleges to make the change to shorter terms.
A trend toward shorter terms
An increasing number of community colleges are taking the same path as Odessa College, seeing longer academic terms as an obstacle to enrollment, persistence, and equity. These schools are deconstructing the semester and offering shorter terms — usually seven or eight weeks long — with options for continuous enrollment.i
“Higher education leaders need to ask whether [the] traditional [14- to 16-week] option is best for students with families and dependents, those who need to work while attending school, or students who have never been to college,” according to ATD, which includes shortened terms among its equity-driven initiatives.
“More than 20 community colleges in Achieving the Dream’s network use shortened terms as a strategy, and the number is growing.”
Shorter terms’ contribute to equity
The rationale behind the shift to shorter terms is that offering fewer courses for shorter periods can help students who have work and family responsibilities stay enrolled, maintain momentum, and complete their degree programs successfully.ii The results so far have been promising.
One reason for this positive impact is the flexibility that shorter courses offer for students who face challenges outside of the classroom. For these students — who must negotiate bumps in the road to complete their education — the new model has clear advantages over the traditional approach.
According to ATD, when every course is 15 weeks long, it can be more difficult for students to get back on track if life events disrupt their academic progress. “In a traditional semester format, if a student has a disruption at any point and cannot continue their courses, they lose all momentum — and credit — for that semester and must wait for the next semester to begin again,” ATD stated in its guide to the new academic model. “Shorter academic terms allow for more immediate credit recovery in the event of a disruption.”
Shortened terms are particularly beneficial for part-time students. With one course every 15 weeks — the typical pattern for part-timers in the traditional schedule — it can take too long for the students to achieve their academic goal. But with shorter terms, part-time students can double the credits earned in a semester, cutting their time to completion in half.
In addition, by making it easier for students to enroll in multiple classes each semester, shortened terms can make more part-time students eligible for financial aid. Many part-time students are not eligible for certain financial aid if enrolled in just one course per semester.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 65% of community college students attend part time.
“There is nothing magical about offering 15 weeks of course delivery; providing flexibility with multiple on-ramps, and fewer courses for shorter periods of time, is helping colleges serve their students more equitably.”
— Achieving the Dream, Preparing for Shorter Academic Terms: A Guide.
Research about the impact of shortened terms is ongoing as use of this model spreads, but data on these early adopters shows promising results.
Data from Achieving the Dream’s Preparing for Shorter Academic Terms guide unless otherwise indicated.
Amarillo College in Amarillo, Texas
- Began shortening terms in 2016.
- Increased full-time enrollment rate from 36% in 2016 to 46% in 2020.
- Improved academic success rates for African American and Hispanic students.iii
Trident Technical College in North Charleston, South Carolina
- Adopted a seven-week option in fall 2014.
- Improved course success rates from 63% to 75% by fall 2017.
- Decreased withdrawal rates from 16% to 9%.
- Increased the graduation rate by eight percentage points.
Odessa College in Odessa, Texasiv
- Converted 80% of courses to two eight-week terms in fall 2014.
- Doubled its graduation rate in the same academic year.
- Increased enrollment by 13% within two years and by 25% by 2019.
Grayson College in Grayson County, Texasv
- Greatly expanded eight-week offerings in fall 2018.
- Immediately saw 11% more students convert from a part-time enrollment status to a full-time enrollment status compared to the previous year.
- Achieved a student course success rate of 81% — a 19-year high — in spring 2019.
Laying the groundwork for shorter terms
Shortening the semester length at a school is not like flipping a switch.
Extensive preparation is required to make the needed changes in course redesign, financial aid, faculty engagement, student advising, and other elements. And when course hours are compressed, a mix of modalities may be needed to accommodate students who work — for instance, conducting lectures online while having labs in person. Faculty buy-in to course redesign can be particularly challenging.
Laurie Fladd, ATD’s director of holistic student supports, said colleges need to be aware of — and accept — the need for preparation and adjustments.
Fladd was associate dean of science and mathematics at Trident Technical College when it was beginning to make this change. As someone with firsthand experience of the effort, Fladd believes the switch is a big lift for community colleges and not one every community college can make.
“Colleges that do this well are very used to doing transformative work already at their institutions,” she added. “For these colleges, it’s really just the next iteration for how they support their students.”
For example, by the time Odessa College shifted to shorter terms (in 2014), it had already started implementing a drop-rate improvement plan that paired tracking the drop rate for individual instructors with intentional support from the college’s division of teaching and learning. According to ATD, this earlier initiative (begun in 2011) meant the institution had “three solid years of [experience] transforming the college culture” before it introduced shorter terms.
“When the college announced they were making yet another transformative change to an eight-week academic calendar, there was very little resistance,” Fladd indicated. “Instead, faculty and staff jumped in, and everyone started rowing in the same direction.”
Another key preparatory step, according to the ATD guide is “… to define the metrics of success that are important to the institutional context. It is also important to monitor both leading and lagging indicators of success to ensure that these efforts do not produce hidden consequences for students.”
For colleges that are ready — or that just want to explore the option of shorter terms — help is available. Along with its guide to instituting shorter terms, ATD provides a workbook and spotlights on six colleges that have implemented the change. The spotlights supplement the information in the guide with valuable context on how individual schools, with different situations, implemented this change: the preparations they made, the obstacles they encountered, and the lessons they learned.
For individual colleges, digging into the data on their student populations (such as the number of working parents) can help inform program design, Fladd said. Colleges can use the early momentum indicators, such as first-year credit accumulation and completion rates, provided by the National Student Clearinghouse’s Postsecondary Data Partnership to track the change’s impact on student outcomes.
i Achieving the Dream (n.d.). Holistic Student Supports: Preparing for Shortened Academic Terms, https://achievingthedream.org/preparing-for-shortened-academic-terms-guide-workbook-and-spotlights
iii Amarillo College uses a combination of course success, attempted credits, and progression rate to gauge student success.
iv Achieving the Dream (n.d.). Odessa College: An Overnight Success Several Years in the Making, https://achievingthedream.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/odessa_college_spotlight.pdf
v Achieving the Dream (n.d.). Grayson College: Replicating Success for Students, https://achievingthedream.org/preparing-for-shortened-academic-terms-guide-workbook-and-spotlights
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