University of Mount Union

Like many colleges nationwide, the University of Mount Union canceled its traditional weeklong spring break.

On a college campus, academic calendars reign supreme, dictating basically everything that happens at an institution. In addition to serving as an internal and external schedule, calendars power a lengthy list of a campus’ activities, ranging from being the foundation of information systems to making sure students log enough instructional days to hit financial aid requirements.

For the most part, calendars remained unchanged at many institutions — until, of course, the pandemic.

“It’s caused us to take a more in-depth look at what our calendar has looked like in the past and then to consider what types of adjustments might not only be helpful to students during the pandemic, but also post-pandemic,” said Laura Barnard, Lakeland Community College’s executive vice president and provost.

And while the past year has offered, or in some cases required, opportunities for innovation, recent calendar tweaks could have long-lasting impacts on campuses here in Northeast Ohio and nationwide.

At Lakeland, Barnard said officials saw a big uptick of interest in an eight-week session near the end of last semester, despite the Kirtland campus’ total fall 2020 full-time enrollment dropping 19%. Those accelerated courses are shorter than a traditional 16-week class but cover the same amount of material.

Those attending a community college often have lots going on outside of the classroom, as national data shows their average age is 28 and 64% of them attend part time. Nearly 60% are women and more than half are students of color, both groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of the pandemic.

Weaving in those eight-week classes can be a pipeline to help get people to work more quickly — such as a welding course where students earn an industry-ready certification after its completion. These opportunities can be more attractive to employers. After all, Barnard said, workforce needs don’t always align with a college’s academic calendar.

The campus is launching a new pilot program next fall. Lakeland will add a 12-week “late start” session, hoping it hits a sweet spot in length and pace. This will give students four separate chances to start classes that semester.

“The more entry points for students, the more opportunities they have to earn the courses that will get them the certification and the degrees that they’re seeking, because they don’t have to then delay,” she said.

Other schools have embraced similar strategies. A community college in Arizona offers about 40 start dates in an academic year, while Maryland’s Community College of Baltimore County has more than a dozen to pick from.

Another change campuses nationwide implemented this year was canceling weeklong spring breaks. The University of Mount Union did just that, moving to weave in a handful of “spring relax days” throughout the schedule instead. It will allow the university to end this semester a week early while still hitting those instructional time requirements.

University registrar and assistant vice president for academic affairs Bryan Boatright suspects Mount Union will go back to a traditional break schedule in the future.

“Having that break to just kind of stand back a little bit and then jump back in really does make a huge difference,” he said.

But one of the recently implemented shifts he’d like to see permanently adopted at the Alliance campus is some type of shorter winter term. Mount Union offered one for the first time this academic year. About 90 students enrolled in the six-week session between the fall and spring semesters.

“Not only did it help a lot of students get caught back up if they had maybe not done so well on something during the pandemic or just took some time off, but it also was a great revenue stream for the institution,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, Boatright wanted to take a closer look at ways to improve Mount Union’s calendar. He has eyed differences at other institutions — later start times here, longer holiday breaks there.

But plotting out the calendar is like putting together a puzzle. Different schedules and initiatives must align. A variety of stakeholders, such as accreditors and faculty, need to give feedback and approval. And it’s a bit of a long game, too, as decisions on this front are typically made and agreed upon years in advance.

Rick Staisloff, founder and senior partner at college consulting firm RPK Group, points out that while the pandemic brought along a sense of urgency, some schools have already been experimenting with other models.

There are initiatives such as block scheduling, which divides a semester up into smaller chunks to allow students to dive deeper into a subject, or programs that embrace the co-op model to better connect to the working world.

But those can be the exceptions, not the rules. He said there’s a reason why lots of national attention on this front goes toward places like Arizona State University’s multisession semesters or Western Governors University’s emphasis on competency-based education.

“It’s because there’s not hundreds of examples of innovation in higher ed,” Staisloff said. “So they’ve been operating more at the fringes, although with good success. I think the fringe is, in essence, going to get bigger. You’re going to see more flexibility get built in around the academic calendar within the overall industry, but you’re still going to have a pretty healthy percentage in the core that that’s going to stick to the traditional model, because it’s what people know.”

Staisloff added that many of those models are built for 18-year-old, full-time students, a “shrinking” population of the overall industry.

“We need to better respond to the need for post-secondary credentials across a broader part of our population in this country, and that’s where I think the demand is going to come from for these more flexible models,” he said. “Smart institutions, I think, will start to look to how they can capture more of that market.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.