Jesus Flores was not sure how his learning disability would affect his plans to attend college, but a suggestion from an El Paso Community College financial aid adviser prior to the fall 2023 semester seems to have put him on a path to success – and he’s not alone.

Flores, a 2023 graduate of El Dorado High School, told the EPCC representative that it is hard for him to focus on assignments and taking four courses per semester, a full load, would probably lead to pressure – and failure.

The adviser recommended he enroll in a pilot program at the college’s Mission del Paso campus that offers eight-week hybrid semester courses compared to the standard 16 week in-person model. He took writing, psychology and U.S. history courses during the first two fall minimesters and an English course in the first half of the spring semester that ended March 8.

He said he likes the brisk pace of the shorter courses and how the combination of face-to-face and virtual classes give him more flexibility with his schedule that includes a campus work-study job and membership with the Mission gardening club.

“This is working for me,” said Flores, a multidisciplinary studies major. “I would not have made it with 16-week classes. That would have been too much stress.”

In the hybrid format, students continue to meet with their instructors and peers two classes per week on a Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday schedule. The time they do not come to school provides opportunities to study, do homework, meet with instructors or any support personnel in-person or online, or to participate in campus events. The goal was to familiarize students with the campus, its personnel and a college-going culture.

Joshua Villalobos, dean of the El Paso Community College Mission del Paso campus, directs the two-year pilot program to study the effect of shorter semesters on enrollment, retention and completion. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

EPCC leaders decided in summer 2022 to be among the 14 Texas community colleges involved in this two-year study initiated by the Trellis Foundation and the Texas Success Center, an arm of the Texas Association of Community Colleges that is funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The college assigned Joshua Villalobos, dean of the Mission campus, to direct this pilot program. Officials chose the Mission campus because it was the fastest growing part of the county with a younger population that is more open to learning differently. Villalobos stressed that eight-week courses are not new to the college, but the scale of the project is significant.

“It was a pretty heavy lift because we had to build our entire schedule from scratch,” Villalobos said.

He said one factor that makes this effort transformative is the use of the exact same course format via the Blackboard online teaching application, so notes, assignments and other necessary components were in the same location to make it easier for the students.

Additionally, the transition included professional development training for faculty and staff in the areas of Blackboard, teaching techniques, program updates and support mechanisms such as the early alert system to recognize when a student was having difficulty with the compressed schedule.

Prior to the launch, the college made sure the faculty received the proper pedagogical and technical training because much of the work would be done online.

“Those are the things that made our faculty excited about this project beyond the shortened time and free Fridays,” Villalobos said. “It was this opportunity to change the way we do things in the classroom and throughout the campus.”

By the start of the fall 2023 semester, more than 50 full-time and part-time faculty members had transitioned 60% of the campus’ courses to the eight-week model. For students, the cost was the same for a 16-week course – $136 per credit hour.

Results after the first two eight-week minimesters showed improved numbers in enrollment, grades and retention.

Fall registration for the first session was 1,228. About 81% of the students who participated in mini 1 and mini 2 earned a letter grade of C or better. By comparison, the same success rate of students in the fall 2022 16-week semester was 72%.

Of the enrolled students, 49% were full-time compared to 39% overall at the college. Also, of the students who started in the fall’s pilot program, 44% returned exclusively for the eight-week program in the spring, and overall, 72% returned for either the pilot program or the college in general.

“When we look at these hybrid modality courses, it seems to be the best of both worlds,” Villalobos said. “It just seems like things are getting a little more complicated for the average student and this might be the best solution for them.”

A January 2023 essay published by the Community College Research Center suggested that college administrators should consider their students’ personal and professional lives as they determine class schedules. Family obligations such as child care and work schedules often conflict with class times, which discourages student enrollment.

Investigations have demonstrated that full-time students experience academic fatigue during a 16-week semester due to academics – homework, studying, projects, midterms, finals – and life issues.

Studies have shown that 43% of full-time students and 81% of part-time students juggle jobs and academics, and that about 20% of college students are parents, and 53% are raising children under age 6. In May 2023, EPCC reported that about 40% of its students were parents.

Data from decades of research has shown how shorter courses translate to improved student outcomes and fewer withdrawals, which have led to greater completion rates, according to Achieving the Dream, a national organization that works with community colleges in every aspect of their operation. The reasons include a narrower academic focus, self-paced flexibility to complete tasks and a wider support net generated by faculty, tutors, advisers and counselors.

The Trellis Foundation and the Texas Success Center assigned each participant to a mentor institution. EPCC partnered with Odessa College, which transitioned many of its courses to the eight-week format in 2014.

Kim McKay, vice president of Student Services at Odessa College, said that accelerated courses are the future of higher education. (Courtesy photo)

Personnel from both campuses traded site visits during the 2022-23 academic year where faculty and administrators learned more about course modifications, accelerated terms, campus support and student success.

Kim McKay, vice president of Student Services and Enrollment Management at Odessa College, said she was impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment of the EPCC participants who met every benchmark during the transition.

“Their energy was fantastic,” said McKay, who believes that the shorter courses are the wave of the future in higher education. “They were ready to do this for their students.”

Among the EPCC faculty members who transitioned their classes was Edith Aguirre, professor and math coordinator at the Mission campus. She said that her 20 math peers who taught college math through Calculus II were eager to participate.

Aguirre said the toughest part of the program was adjusting her course content to a shorter format, but a close second was staying on top of students to make sure they did not fall behind.

Edith Aguirre, professor of mathematics at El Paso Community College Mission del Paso campus, was among the faculty members who transitioned their courses to eight weeks from 16 weeks. She said the most difficult parts were adjusting the content and getting the students back to a pre-COVID pace. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

She shared a story of one student, a young mother who failed a course in the first fall minimester because she could not get to her 8 a.m. class due to child care issues. However, she re-enrolled in the same course in the second minimester and was successful.

“As with any course, those who stayed focused finished,” she said. “The ones who did the work succeeded. The students I spoke to said they were not stressed (by the condensed courses). Many said they liked it.”

Villalobos said that the college will keep track of the program’s progress, and tweak where necessary, but will not focus on the numbers – enrollment and student success – until the end of the 2024-25 academic year. At that point, leaders will reassess the program and determine how to move forward at the campus and college levels.

“For me, student success is far more important than enrollment,” Villalobos said. “If the students aren’t successful, it doesn’t matter how many students are sitting at a desk.”

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.