When Cal Poly took its Master Plan presentation on the road recently, big-ticket items such as a hotel and conference center generated most of the buzz. One idea was almost lost in the mix: a year-round university.
Yet true year-round education — as opposed to a summer program with limited offerings — could be one of the biggest game-changers for California’s higher education system.
It would make it possible for Cal Poly and other state universities to enroll more students and to allow more efficient use of taxpayer-funded facilities, and it could make it easier for students to get the classes they need to graduate on time, potentially saving each of them — and their families — tens of thousands of dollars.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong says the university has made no commitment to year-round education, but it is studying it.
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Armstrong estimates the university could grow by 3,000 to 4,000 students if it switched to year-round schooling. It also would create additional jobs for faculty and staff — or provide more work for existing employees.
“I think it would be great, talking personally,” said Graham Archer, president of Cal Poly’s faculty association. “I would absolutely welcome some vehicle to get additional pay.”
But how would students feel about attending school during the summer?
That’s a key question Cal Poly is asking. “We don’t want to build it and hope they come,” said Armstrong, meaning the university wants some assurance that enough students will enroll in a summer quarter.
There also would need to be commitment from the state of California. Year-round operations can’t happen without additional financial support from the state, Armstrong said, especially because he doesn’t want to rely on a large influx of out-of-state students — who pay higher fees — to generate revenue.
Providing public universities with a financial incentive to operate year-round is a proposal the state has examined before. In 1999, Board of Equalization Vice Chairman George Runner — then a Republican assemblyman — introduced a bill that would have required public universities to phase in full-fledged summer programs to qualify for state revenue for building projects.
Summer programs were expanded at some campuses, but the educational revolution that Runner envisioned never happened, at least, not at the university level.
Several elementary school districts — including, for a time, Santa Maria-Bonita — turned to year-round education because they had no more room to house their rapidly growing student bodies. Yet relatively few American universities have made the switch to year-round.
Dartmouth College, a private university in New Hampshire, operates one of the oldest and best-known programs. It went to year-round in 1972, announcing at the time that it planned to increase the student body by 25 percent. Today, Dartmouth students are only required to attend summer term in their sophomore year; in other years, they can choose whether to enroll in summer quarter.
If Cal Poly were to adopt a similar schedule, we don’t expect summer school would be for everyone. Some students need to work full-time in the summer or have family obligations. But for those students who are interested, a summer quarter could provide some welcome flexibility.
For example, competition for summer internships can be extremely intense. Under a year-round schedule, a student could intern during a fall, winter or spring quarter and make up for it by taking classes in the summer.
On the other side of the equation, there are negative consequences that universities must weigh. Cost is one. Also, year-round operations put more wear-and-tear on buildings, make it harder to schedule big maintenance projects, and can make it tougher for some campuses to schedule summer community programs.
Consider, too, that students and Poly employees wouldn’t be the only ones affected by the change. The San Luis Obispo community, which is used to seeing an exodus of college students during the summer, would lose that down time, and given town-grown conflicts we’ve seen in the past, that’s no small matter.
Yet it’s difficult to argue against the more efficient use of taxpayer-funded facilities. After all, would we want other public buildings — DMV offices or city halls or courthouses — to close three months out of the year?
It’s especially concerning since Cal Poly is in such demand; for example, the university received 55,000 applications for 4,500 fall openings.
“We literally turned away thousands of kids with 4.0 (GPAs),” Armstrong told The Tribune Editorial Board. It isn’t just these highly qualified students who suffer when they’re denied admission. As baby boomers retire in waves, many California businesses and industries need employees, particularly in the fields of science, math, technology and engineering that Cal Poly offers.
We don’t know whether year-round education is the best way to ensure that California has a quality work force 10, 20 and 30 years from now. We need more information before we endorse or discourage the year-round concept for Cal Poly, and we look forward to the report from the university’s task force. We do know, however, that it’s time — past time — we examined why we’re so wedded to the nine-month calendar for our colleges and universities.
When so many students are knocking on the doors of Cal Poly and other top state institutions, we must assess whether we’re failing students — as well as the residents of California — by sticking with an academic model that’s been around for hundreds of years, but may no longer fit the 21st century.