Year-Round University Good for Parents and Taxpayers

January 16, 2012

For release Jan. 18 and thereafter (670 words)

Purdue University’s decision to convert to a year-round trimester system is good for students, good for parents and long-run will be good for taxpayers. The only downside is that it may take 10 years to fully implement.

Other state universities should take note. Few taxpayer resources are wasted as egregiously as university campuses in summer. It makes no sense to idle dormitories, classrooms and laboratories when there’s demand to use them – and when it costs almost as much to maintain empty buildings as full ones.

“A really sensible move toward becoming a more efficient operation” is how Michael Poliakoff, a higher-ed reformer, described the plan.

Best part of all, offering a full summer term means students who so choose will be able to complete a four-year degree in less than three calendar years.

Key motivation for Purdue, the university says, is to raise revenue in light of declining state aid. This will help reverse risingtuition trends. When in full effect, the trimester system should bring in $40 million more for the university.

Savings also should be found in capital costs. Though repair and maintenance expenses will go up when buildings are used more, a year-round calendar will boost dorm and classroom capacity, which means less need for new construction.

That benefits taxpayers, as does moving graduates with high-quality degrees more quickly into the taxpaying workforce, said Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington D.C.

“The idea of the three-year degree is an idea whose time came along time ago,” he said. “It’s obscene it hasn’t been more widely adopted.”

Purdue’s undergrad enrollment now stands at 31,000. About 6,000 students take summer classes in West Lafayette averaging four to five credit hours each. The hope is to increase summer enrollment to more than 20,000 students by 2022.

Elsewhere around the country, three-year degree programs have been catching on but typically are designed for students on accelerated tracks able to reach the standard 120 credit hour minimum more quickly than their peers – still using a traditional two-semester calendar.

The University of Virginia offers the option to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in four years to students who enter with advanced standing. American University began its first three-year degree this fall in international service. In 2009 the Rhode Island legislature mandated a three-year option for students with advanced placement and dual enrollment credits – an option students in Indiana schools can exercise now depending on how many hours they bring with them from high school.

The more pioneering year-round option at Purdue would allow any student to get through in three years assuming completion of 15 credit hours per trimester – i.e. three falls, three springs, and two summers.

But why take so long to implement a good idea? Purdue spokesman Chris Sigurdson says 10 years may be needed to iron out details, especially with faculty whose teaching load and curricula are affected. If things can be done sooner, they will. “This is a significant change from

how universities have done business for a hundred plus years and we need to bring our people along with us.”

Although pushback from faculty is to be expected, success will depend on redefining professor productivity so that teaching hours are valued as much if not more than research. Just as K-12–has been forced to do, higher ed must change with economic reality.

There’s nothing sacred about the way universities operate. Consider that when Harvard opened its doors in 1636, the three-year degree was the standard. When the college changed to a four-year requirement in 1652, cost-aware students objected. In protest, 15 of 17 members of the Class of 1655 refused to pay the commencement fee or to accept their diplomas.

Purdue has taken a huge first step. Indiana University recently announced an initiative to boost summer school enrollment and will want to expand that. Other public universities should follow. Instead of “publish or perish,” there’s a new mantra in academia: Be productive or perish.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


Leave a Reply