Academic Calendars

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Academic calendar use at the higher education level has followed a consistent and non-varied path over the last few decades. Five types of calendars have been principally used. These include the early semester, traditional semester, quarter system, trimester, and "4-1-4" calendars. A longitudinal review of use patterns revealed that the traditional semester (a calendar that divides the academic year into two terms of 15 to 17 weeks) was the dominant calendar used by U.S. colleges and universities from the 1950s to the early 1970s. The early semester (a variant of the traditional semester that divides the academic year into equivalent terms but begins and ends about two weeks earlier) replaced the traditional semester in prevalence in the mid-1970s and has remained the dominant calendar used since that time.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) conducted an analytical study of calendar use in 2001 to gauge the extent of change that has occurred. The study, based on data sets from the National College Stores, Oberlin, Ohio, and literature and institutional practice reviews, examined calendar use and conversions at 4,100 colleges and universities during the 20002001 academic year. Principal findings from the study and evaluative information on the impacts of calendar use or conversion on higher education instruction follow.

Calendar Use during the 19902000 Decade

Marginal variations occurred in calendar use over the 19902000 decade. Most institutions used the early semester calendar; its use actually increased by 8 percent over the ten-year period. Use of the quarter calendar decreased cumulatively by 9 percent, while use of the traditional semester experienced a zero level of net change. Modest shifts occurred in use of the trimester and 4-1-4 systems.

Current Calendar Use

A significant majority of higher education institutions currently use the semester calendar (either the early or traditional semester). The AACRAO study found that 70 percent of all institutions that participated in the study and 77 percent of the degree-granting institutions used a semester calendar for academic year (AY) 20002001. Two-thirds of the institutions used the early semester calendar and 4 percent used the traditional semester. Fifteen percent used the quarter system, few institutions used the 4-1-4 calendar, and the trimester was the least frequently used.

The pattern (i.e., predominance) of calendar use was consistent across institutions even when adjustments for basic indices such as institutional sector and size were made. Disaggregation by these institutional indices, in fact, yielded statistically similar results.

Calendar use by institutional level or sector. The early semester was the dominant calendar used across all institutional sectors. Eighty-three percent of the community colleges used it, along with 71 percent of the four-year doctoral and nondoctoral granting institutions, and 52 percent of the junior colleges. Fifty-nine percent of the professional schools (law/medical schools) and 40 percent of the graduate schools also used the early semester calendar. Trade schools, by contrast, used the quarter system more frequently than other calendars (with a use rate of 39%).

Calendar use by enrollment size. Again, because of its generalized high frequency of use, the early semester was the primary calendar used across all enrollment variants. Sixty-four percent of schools with small enrollments (total enrollments under 5,000) used it, as well as 68 percent of medium-sized schools (those with enrollments of 5,000 to 19,999), and 77 percent of schools with larger enrollments (equaling or exceeding 20,000 students).

Calendar Conversions

Three hundred and eighty-five of the institutions participating in the AACRAO 2001 study changed their calendar during AY 20002001 (a conversion rate of 9.2%). This conversion rate is historically significant because it constitutes a rate that is four times the conversion rate that occurred in AY 19901991 and more than twice the rate that occurred in AY 19971998 (the last time the AACRAO study was conducted).

Prevalent conversions. The majority of the conversions entailed changes to the semester calendar; 55 percent of the converting institutions made this change (48% converted to the early semester system and 7% to the traditional semester). Seventeen percent of the institutions converted to the quarter calendar and 12 percent converted to the 4-1-4 calendar. Other conversions were nonconsequential.

Conversion paths. The most frequent change entailed institutions converting from the traditional semester to the early semester system; fifty-eight institutions (or 15% of those converting) made this change. Fifty-five institutions (14%) converted from the quarter calendar to a semester calendar (primarily to the early semester); and forty-four institutions (11%) converted from the semester to the quarter calendar.

Conversions by institutional type or level. Conversion rates by institutional level were again fairly consistent. Professional schools (law/medical schools) converted at a rate that was marginally higher than other school types (13%). Junior colleges, trade schools, and graduate schools converted at rates of 12% each. Community colleges and four-year doctoral and nondoctoral colleges and universities converted at lower rates (8% respectively).

Conversions by institutional size. Rates of conversion were also consistent across enrollment variants. Smaller institutions (those with enrollments of less than 5,000) converted slightly more frequently than institutions of other sizes (13%). Medium-sized schools (enrollment size of 5,000 to 19,999) and schools with larger enrollments (20,000 or more students) converted at a rate of 8 percent.

Effects of Calendar Use and Conversion on Instruction and Curriculum

The AACRAO study did not address the impacts of calendar use or conversion on higher education instruction. An examination of these issues, especially effects on degree requirements, time-to-degree completion, course load/credit hour requirements, and curriculum restructuring, would have enhanced the study but were considered to be beyond its scope.

A review of institutional policy documents, technical approaches, and working papers from the Ohio State University, University of California at Davis, and other institutions did, however, provide the following evaluative assessments:

Most of the college and university administrators who have participated in implementing calendar changes have had varied assessments of its impact. Administrators at some of the larger research institutions have suggested that the impact of conversion on teaching load, class size and staffing needs will vary depending on the conversion model adopted (typically the Constant Format model, the Constant Content model, or a hybrid of the two). Faculty and administrators of other institutions suggest that most of the models proposed are too inflexible and will ultimately have negative consequences on college curriculum. Most agree that the various models utilized or proposed either expand or shorten the length of instruction time but generally have a neutral effect on course content. Many also agree that rigidly defined schemes of assigning semester credits to courses must be considered and justified as part of the implementation process that precedes the calendar change; and that any conversion model adopted ensures that program instructional time and hours are maintained over the course of the academic year. (The Ohio State University 2001 Ad Hoc University Calendar Committee, n.p.)

The administrators at the Ohio State University (when considering a quarter to semester calendar conversion) admonished that the conversion would result in a reduction of the total credit value of curricula by approximately one third (as the total number of credits to graduate increases from 180 to 120) but felt that it was actually the distribution and "packaging" of the course content that would actually change, as a result of the reduction in the number of courses and credits offered per course. They further suggested that there are two primary issues to consider when contemplating a quarter to semester conversion: (1) the use of a semester calendar will bring institutions into conformity with 85 percent of the U.S. research institutions (most of the highly ranked institutions are on the semester calendar); and (2) consideration of a calendar change must occur simultaneously with the institution's curricular review, including reviews of credits-to-graduate and general education curriculum requirements. The following assessments were offered in regard to effects on course load and time-to-degree completion:

A lack of documentation on this subject precluded a detailed discussion of the issue. Literature reviews provided little if any substantive or empirical information on these outcomes. Information from institutions that have made conversions suggest that the outcomes for students at these institutions are not well defined. The semester system, for example, reduces the number of terms per year but lengthens the span of each term imposing greater commitments on students. Students will be forced to make greater commitments to each term because failure to complete a term will delay degree completion by a full semester. There may, however, be a tendency for students to remain enrolled in a two semester system to avoid that delay. The lengthened commitment represented by semesters may have a particularly negative impact on the enrollment of students who are part-time, older, non-traditional, university employees, or public school teachers taking evening courses. The increased commitment necessary may cause scheduling difficulties for these students and result in delayed graduation or program completion. The quarter calendar may extend time-to-completion for more students than the semester system because students may be able to skip a quarter and delay their academic progress by only three months. Students on quarters can also change majors more casually than students on semesters because required courses in program majors can begin in the subsequent quarter. (The Ohio State University 2001 Ad Hoc University Calendar Committee, n.p.)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Specific Calendars

Reports from the University of California at Davis and Ohio State University that examined the merits of calendar system use addressed the issue of quarter versus semester system advantages and suggested the following. Some of the advantages of the semester calendar cited are that: (1) it provides an opportunity for more thorough examination of subjects, research assignments, and term papers; (2) it increases time spent in each course, making it possible to receive in-depth learning and a better opportunity for students to "rebound" from a poor start in a course;(3) it promotes greater interaction between faculty and students; (4) it reduces the tendency towards course fragmentation; and (5) for transfer students, it offers greater compatibility with other institutions' calendars and curriculums.

Some advantages cited in favor of the quarter system include its ability to: (1) afford departments greater flexibility in providing course offerings and availability; (2) allow students increased flexibility in selecting majors and arranging class schedules; (3) allow fundamental, introductory courses to be offered more frequently, making scheduling easier and classes smaller; (4) allow students to receive instruction from more instructors; (5) provide opportunities to retake failed courses sooner; (6) allow students who miss terms to resume college enrollment sooner; and (7) provide more opportunities for students to drop in and out, possibly shortening time-to-degree for part-time and transient students.

See also: Academic Major, The; Curriculum, Higher Education; General Education in Higher Education.


American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and State Higher Education Executive Officers. 1998. "Postsecondary Student Data Handbook (Internal Review Draft)." Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics and U.S. Department of Education.

National Association of College Stores. 2000. Schedule of College and University Dates, 20002001. Oberlin, OH: National Association of College Stores.

National Center for Education Statistics. 1995. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Glossary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Overturf, L. L.; Frazier, J. E.; and Baker, R. D. 1977. "The Process of Calendar Conversion." College and University 52:724734.

internet resources

Cuyahoga Community College. 1997. "Semester Conversion Frequently Asked Questions." <>.

Ohio State University 2001 Ad Hoc University Calendar Committee. 2001. "The University Calendar Study." <>.

University of California at Davis Semester Committee. 1993. "Semester Conversion Task Force Report." < >.

University of Georgia Semester Conversion Committee. 1995. "Basic Guiding Principles for Curriculum Conversion to the Semester System." <>.

Brenda Ashford

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Academic Calendars

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