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Creating Semester Flexibility for the Modern Learner

The students who most need higher education are often served the most poorly by it. Flexible, short-form learning has the potential to democratize access to education.

Why are almost all college courses in the United States taught in a fall or spring semester and offered in a 16-week format?

Dr. Mark Jordan and I were discussing new strategies and techniques to better serve our students, and the conversation landed on the length of a traditional academic semester. We had known each other for many years while working at Odessa College in various capacities. He was a long-serving English professor, while I was a one-time faculty member who had decided to become a college administrator. We were meeting because he was the president of the Odessa College Faculty Senate and I was the president of Odessa College. We shared mutual respect built on trust, communication and a shared desire to do more to help students. 

On this day, our discussion dealt with the fact that many of our students are economically disadvantaged. We explored how life happens to everyone, and how life seems to happen more often and with greater negative effects to people who are under-resourced.  “What if,” I asked, “we could divide the 16-week semester into two eight-week segments and allow most full-time students to take only two classes per eight-week term?  This would allow students to focus on only two courses per term, then bank their successful course completions every eight weeks instead of having to wait four months.”  

That discussion and those that followed were incredibly meaningful, successful and direction-altering for our college and our students. Held between two student advocates, our discussions set the tone for change. The administration was in, the faculty was in, and it was not difficult to gain institutional support for the game-changing course schedule and course design transformation. After all, these changes improved enrollment, student success and program completion.  

The change to eight-week terms and courses was not our first major innovation. We had been creating and fostering a culture of innovation for years with programs like First Class Free, the Drop Rate Improvement Program, OC Global and Drive 2 Success. Because we believed so strongly in our educational product, we were willing to share the experience of the First Class Free with anyone new to Odessa College. Our area’s college-going rate had been low for some time, and we knew something had to change to disrupt historical college-going practices. Through the Drop Rate Improvement Program, Odessa College instructors were encouraged and taught how to keep students in their classes. We found that dropping courses was detrimental to our students, so we taught them to finish what they started. This program resulted in improved course completion rates and eventually higher graduation rates. The OC Global program taught faculty members how to better use technology in delivering courses, which helped keep students more effectively engaged. The Drive 2 Success program incentivized students for doing things that increased the likelihood of their college success. Through this program, students earned points or entries into a drawing for a brand-new Ford Mustang (it had to be a Mustang because we are the Wranglers!). 

When we brought forward the idea of eight-week terms, the college was prepared because of our culture of innovation and our willingness to color outside the lines. We worked and continue to work with the mindset that we must do more to improve all aspects of our operations. We know that ideas and innovations fuel our institution and our efforts to improve.

Once the decision was made to move forward with approximately 80% of our courses operating in the eight-week format, we then had to change our college’s operational approach regarding semesters, terms and course lengths. We needed to accomplish all of this in less than a year. But before we could begin the change process, being the trailblazers we are, we had to secure support from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the course delivery change and their cooperation in making sure our courses would be funded by the state. Changing almost everything about the way we offer and deliver 80% or more of our courses was a huge lift! Financial aid had to be considered, classes flipped, schedules changed and teaching loads altered. Everyone had to jump into the effort to make it all work. Our culture was challenged, and once again, our culture delivered. 

When we researched the many potential benefits of creating and utilizing eight-week terms, we found it would provide students with more on-ramps into higher education.  Most students who wanted to begin their college careers would find they only had to wait a few weeks, as opposed to a few months, to start classes. Furthermore, with innovations like First Class Free firmly in place, even students who had not done any of the college financial preparation work, like pursuing financial aid or scholarship funding (86% of local students live in poverty), could still begin a class in relatively short order. For some of our students, this accelerated access to classes would be critical.  If one had experienced a job loss or a recent move, for example, being able to begin classes sooner rather than later would be very important.  

We also noticed that offering two terms per semester would allow students to mix and match their course work to fit their lives and educational needs.  Most students would take two courses per term, equaling four courses per semester and twelve credit hours. However, some students might take three courses in one term followed by only one course in the following term–for a total of four courses in the semester–while still maintaining full-time student status. This flexibility to choose course pairings would create a menu of options that could certainly make a positive difference. 

When we made the commitment to burn the boats and to go almost all in on eight-week courses, we felt strongly that our students would benefit from enhanced flexibility with course offerings, fewer courses to work on in a given term and courses that lasted only two months as opposed to four. However, there were still many unexpected outcomes such as financial aid eligibility. In this new environment, students are more likely to take more credit hours during a term or semester, which allows them to receive more financial support. Since 2010, success rates (students making an A, B or C in their courses) have increased by 24% and graduation rates have increased by 147%. Students’ drop rates also have improved from 7% in 2010 to 3% in 2021.

The move to eight-week courses and terms has been a game changer and a game enhancer for Odessa College. This change in the way we operate and certainly all of the attached improvement, evolved from a conversation between a faculty leader and a college president–two humans who wanted the best for their students, their institution and their community. 

When we learn to communicate with and to truly listen to each other, many more opportunities become available. The amazing outcomes encourage me and should encourage all leaders to keep not only their doors open, but also their minds open to ideas and discussions that can take institutions to the next level. Additionally, as COVID-19 swept through our nation’s educational landscape in early 2020, after completing the spring 1 term, our students were able to bank their credits and begin the new spring 2 semester under new protocols and operational guidelines. Life as we knew it was altered, and life had happened to everyone! 

The Odessa College team takes pride in our students’ success. Student success is our driver, our goal, our North Star. Therefore, we intentionally hire team members who look for opportunities to improve, grow and enhance our philosophy and systems. I want team members who are always thinking about how they can come forward with the next big thing, the next great idea.

Many of us in higher education understand we have not done enough good for enough people.  We are pretty good with the people who don’t really need us, but if you really need us, we have trouble rising to the occasion. That had to change and is changing. 

As Geoffrey Canada–American educator, social activist, author and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York once quipped about P-12 education in New York City, “Superman is not coming to save us.  We have to be willing to do this for ourselves.” The good news is we have enough, and we are enough, to make the changes and improvements that are needed. 

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