February 15, 2013 by Roger McCain
I wrote to the Triangle two years ago in favor of a transition from a quarter system to trimesters. I’d like to think the current review of alternatives to quarters by our administration is a result of my benign influence, but I’m not quite silly enough to think that. Nevertheless I would like to address it, having taught, in the previous century, in two quarter and four semester institutions. As an economist, let me address costs and benefits.
First, benefits. It is said that the semesters would be less hectic. From my experience, there is some truth in that, especially in courses that stress a paper or project. However, I always felt that semesters are pretty hectic, too. The major benefit would come from adopting a plan similar to those of most other institutions in our area. As I teach my students, there are some situations in which it is best for everybody if everybody chooses the same strategy — coordination games. It does seem to me that university scheduling is a coordination game. These benefits are hard to quantify but would recur in every year after the change.
Second, costs. The main costs are costs of the transition itself. The curricula of all our programs will have to be rewritten as semester courses. For some programs, these costs may be substantial, but they will occur only once. These costs may be mitigated in some cases. For the undergraduate programs in LeBow College, they will be slight because our undergraduate courses carry four quarter credits. They meet four hours per week for 40 hours per term, and under a semester system they would meet three hours a week for 14 weeks, 42 hours per term. That’s close enough for government work. Some courses currently worth three credits under the quarter system may be offered (at least at first) as two-credit courses on the semester system — meeting two hours per week for 14 weeks, 28 hours total as against 30 on the quarter system. For some programs, however, this will be infeasible (much of the freshman year program, for example), and in other cases it would be likely to be a handicap in recruiting students (probably the master’s in business administration, for example.) However, many of our programs are now being rethought and redesigned every few years anyway, so perhaps the cost of a redesign for semesters or trimesters would not add much to the costs that we will bear anyway in the course of this cycle.
Of course, we also have to consider accommodating the co-op. In order to fit the Six-month co-op cycle, it would be best if there were two summer terms, each a half-semester of seven weeks. Co-op students (either in four- or five-year programs) would take two summer terms to substitute for their eighth semester. A further benefit of this approach is that the burden of summer study would fall equally on both co-op cycles. As it stands, students on fall-winter co-ops are at the disadvantage. While that would be partly eliminated by making the summer quarter equal to the others, that has been on Drexel’s agenda for the 25 years I have been here — and no movement in that direction has taken place. If anything, the contrary. This advantage was the main one I addressed in my 2011 letter.
As I wrote in 2011, it will take more than six months to make the transition, but it is worthwhile to consider what the 2013-2014 academic year would be like on a trimester system. The fall term would begin Tuesday, Sept. 3, the day after Labor Day, and continue through Dec. 16 with exams Dec. 17-20. The spring term would begin Jan. 6 and continue until April 21, with exams April 22-25. Graduation would be May 3. The first summer term would begin May 5 and continue through June 20 with exams June 23-27. The second summer term would begin June 30 and continue through Aug. 15, with exams Aug. 18-22 and July 4 as a holiday. In this I have assumed that classes for fall and spring terms have to end on Monday due to University holidays, thereby requiring final exam week either to end on Saturday, as it currently does in the winter and summer quarters, or to be condensed into four days, as it currently is in the spring quarter. State regulations require 14 classroom hours per semester credit, so this will continue to be a problem under semesters.
Roger McCain is a professor of economics at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.