Among all the factors students consider when selecting a college, the calendar system is rarely among them. And given that the vast majority of colleges and universities use the semester system or a variation of it, it’s usually not a big deal. However, when students find their final list of colleges include schools that use differing calendar systems, they need to take the time to decide if it’s something important to them. While there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on which system is best, they do have their pros and cons which students need to consider.
The most common calendar type for colleges is the semester system. The school year is divided into a Fall and Spring term of approximately 15 weeks each. Students usually take four or five classes each semester. The summer session may be split into shorter terms with longer hours.
The vast majority of colleges and universities use the semester calendar system. A total of 87% of 4-year colleges with at least 500 full-time undergraduates use the semester calendar. The percentage of colleges on the semester system has been gradually increasing from 82% in 2000. It is essentially the default calendar for higher education.
A quarter system divides the calendar into four equal terms with the traditional school year consisting of a Fall, Winter, and Spring term of 10 to 12 weeks. The Summer term is the same length as the other quarters but not part of the standard school year. Students usually take three classes each quarter.
Among 4-year programs with at least 500 full-time undergraduates, only 51 colleges are on the quarter system. Most are on the west coast with 15 in California, 10 in Washington, and 7 in Oregon. Illinois is the only other state with more than 2 colleges on the quarter system, with 7 schools reporting using the system.
The 4-1-4 calendar is a variation of the semester system with a January term between the Fall and Spring terms. The January term consists of only one class for the entire period. This allows classes to meet outside the regular time schedules or even travel off campus as part of the studies.
Only 88 colleges have a 4-1-4 calendar system, all private except for 4 public institutions: New College of Florida, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, University of Delaware, and Salisbury University. Colleges using the 4-1-4 system tend to be small with 72 having under 3,000 full-time undergraduates. Many colleges allow students to take January classes at other campuses that participate in an exchange program.
Block Calendar System
The block system consists of eight 3 1/2 week sessions where students take only one class at a time. Generally, students complete an entire semester class in one block although some classes may require two consecutive blocks. The block system allows intensive study of one subject with freedom to schedule classes as necessary. Some students find taking math and science classes on a block system more difficult than a semester system. Colorado College and Cornell College use the block system.
Trimester may refer to the traditional academic year divided into three terms similar to a quarter system or to three semesters of equal length throughout the entire year. The more common situation is three equal terms, Fall, Winter, and Spring, for the academic year with a possible separate summer term. The other form of the trimester system is a variation of the semester system. In a trimester system, the summer session is the same length as the Fall and Spring terms. The goal of the trimester system is to allow students to select any two semesters to complete their academic year.
There are 22 colleges reporting using a trimester system with University of Michigan being the largest of the schools. The remaining schools all have fewer than 5,000 full-time undergraduates with 18 campuses having under 2,000. Unlike colleges using the quarter system, colleges on the trimester system are not concentrated on the west coast.
Pros and Cons of Quarter and Semester Systems
The Pros And Cons Of The Quarter System
Quick overview organized as a list of 7 pros and 9 cons of the quarter system only.
Semesters vs. Quarters: Which System Serves Students Best?
The article lists 2 issues for comparison: job opportunities and transferring. This is followed by arguments for the semester system and the quarter system.
Argument in the Office: Quarter vs. Semester System
Two opinion columns in the University of California, Santa Barbara student paper, one supporting the quarter system, one the semester system.
Quartered or Semestered? The effects of the academic calendar on your psyche
Advice column from the faculty perspective in The Chronicle of Higher Education.