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Welcome to the latest issue of Next, where today we look at how the pandemic might change one of the most hallowed of college traditions: the academic calendar. Plus, the latest on this most unusual admissions season.

? Upcoming Events

For college leaders: Leveraging the federal CARES Act to increase college affordability.Join me on March 1 at 3 p.m. ET for a conversation with ACE’sTed Mitchell, Ivy Tech’s Sue Ellspermann, and Cengage’s Fernando Bleichmar as we explain the Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund and how colleges can put strategies in place to make college more affordable.

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Last chance for families of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders: I’m teaming up with Road2College for a three-part series on launching the college search. The course starts this Sunday! That’s when Georgia Tech’s Rick Clark joins me for the first session.

? More details here(including a discount code).

The Tyranny of the Calendar

Years ago, when I was a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, a president of a major public university told me about a years-long effort by the institution’s faculty senate to tweak the academic calendar. The goal? To extend Thanksgiving Break to last an entire week. The change never passed because the faculty couldn’t figure out how to start after Labor Day, fit in all the breaks they wanted, and still complete the minimum number of hours in a semester.

Fast forward to last fall during a virtual event with parents of prospective college students, when a vice president at a different public university suggested that Spring Break — canceled at his and many institutions this year — might never return in the same format.

Why it matters: The academic calendar in higher ed was chiseled in stone decades ago. It’s long been a barrier to change in higher ed.

  • Federal financial-aid regulations mandate that students be enrolled for a specific time period in order to qualify for Pell Grants and student loans.
  • On campus, the calendar drives everything from faculty contracts to the allocation of classrooms to scheduling athletic teams.

What’s happening: Last year, as colleges and universities were forced to shift quickly to remote education and then extend time off campus in the fall, they had to change their calendars on the fly.

  • Breaks were minimized and semesters compressed to reduce student travel.
  • Some colleges welcomed only freshmen and juniors, for instance, last fall, and then sophomores and seniors this spring to comply with social-distancing regulations.

Prior to the pandemic, some colleges and universities were already experimenting with new ways of crafting a calendar to appeal to the needs of today’s students accustomed to learning on their terms.

  • Rio Salado College Arizona has more than 48 start dates a year — basically any Monday — to give students flexibility in when they take courses.
  • Arizona State splits its semester into three sessions: A and B, which last seven and a half weeks each, and a C session, which is the full 15 weeks. The calendar allows students to mix-and-match in-person courses with online courses (which last seven and half weeks) and opens up time either at the beginning or during the latter part of each semester to intern, work on a project, or focus attention on the 15-week courses.
  • Georgia Tech offers five-week-long “mini-mester” courses so students can explore interests outside of their major and gain a greater breadth of knowledge across academic disciplines.

The big picture: By designing a more flexible academic calendar, colleges can offer a variety of routes to pursue a credential rather than the one-size-fits-all full-time option that typically begins in September and ends in May.

What’s next: If colleges can resist the urge to return to their old calendars, they can design new schedules that offer opportunities for students to learn additional skills and personalize their learning.

  • Squeezing in short semesters within the regular full semester is one way colleges can offer industry certifications or certificates with labor-market value.
  • A low-residency option allows students to toggle between campus (where they take shorter, intense in-person classes) and off campus to work at an internship or a research project in another location.
  • Year-round options with additional start dates provide opportunities for more economical paths toward a degree.
  • As part of Southern New Hampshire University’s $10,000 degree launching this fall, the institution is offering a cohort of freshmen the opportunity to spend less time in a traditional classroom and more time in project-based courses and internships.

“We can treat the academics and the coming-of-age as separate things, and in doing so, reduce the time and cost,” says Southern New Hampshire’s president, Paul LeBlanc.

History lesson: When the University of Chicago was founded in 1890, it started with a quarter-system calendar to encourage students from other institutions to transfer during the year.

Bottom line: It’s not that higher ed wasn’t innovative before the pandemic, but the academic calendar was often a constraint to substantial changes — and an artificial one at that. The pandemic forced institutions to operate radically different calendars from their counterparts. Now it offers the chance for colleges to step away from the herd and build programs that meet the differing needs of their students.

Go deeper:

6 Weeks and Counting

Selection season is coming to a close at colleges that deny at least some percentage of their applicants each year. In recent weeks, here’s what I’m hearing from admissions offices about this most unusual season of recruiting students and reviewing applications (lots more to come in future editions of Next).

✈️ Student migration. For the last 20+ years, many colleges have been successful in recruiting students from far afield. Some state flagships enroll more out-of-state freshman than they do in-state freshman. If application trends are any indication, students might be staying somewhat closer to home this year. It might be a one-year blip. But if students have a good experience at some nearby school, expect word to get back to their high schools — potentially creating new migration patterns in the future.

? Recommendations. Many admissions officers told me some teacher recommendations were less useful this year because they were written by teachers who didn’t get to really know their students during Zoom classes. Combined with the absence of test scores, application readers were left with fewer signals in making their decision. Course selection and grades became even more important in whether to accept, deny, or wait list.

? Data on high schools. Colleges with robust data operations can see how accepted students from certain high schools perform in college: the grades they earn, whether they return for their sophomore year, and if they eventually graduate. Some are leaning on that data as they evaluate applicants from those same high schools this year.

✅ Institutional priorities. As I pointed in Who Gets In and Why, admissions is not about the applicant but about institutional priorities. In any given year, that might mean more full payers, humanities majors, and students from the Dakotas. “The pandemic is just giving colleges license to lean into those institutional priorities,” one admissions dean told me.

⏳ The wait list. Wait lists were already long — often larger than the entire freshman class they were waiting for. Many selective colleges and big publics saw huge increases in applications this year. Their previous models about who “yields” by actually enrolling won’t be as useful because so much was different with recruitment this year. So colleges might accept fewer students and put more on the wait list to see how the class shakes out. But don’t expect them to wait too long: some might start going to the wait list early and often in April before too many students melt away.


Moneyball for College Applications
In Case You Missed It: How to evaluate colleges that give out merit aid — and those that don’t. (

The Impact of Early College in Massachusetts
Participants in the program are enrolling in college within six months of graduating high school at a 20 percentage point higher rate than peers not in the program. (

Good Jobs in Bad Times
Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market analytics firm, joined me and Michael Horn on the Future U podcast to talk about how the pandemic has dramatically changed the outlook for new college graduates and what higher ed can do to help students prepare for life after college, including the academic programs to put in place. (

The Math of Tuition Discounts
A drive to increase enrollment at Albion College was successful in bringing more students to campus. It didn’t solve Albion’s problems. (

? I’m beginning to booktalks and workshops for the year ahead to high school parent groups and college counselors interested in professional development related to my new book on admissions, as well as college leaders and trustees interested in the future of higher education after the pandemic. Reach out if you’re interested in learning more.

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...