BOSTON — Going to college in the good old summer time may sound like punishment for an out-of-control social life. But to a growing number of students and administrators, summer is their open-secret advantage.
Take, for instance, Greg Talbot. Most freshmen will arrive wide-eyed at the University of Florida in Gainesville a few weeks from now. Not Mr. Talbot. He got a jump start by enrolling in summer classes in June. Now he's on campus, primed, and ready for his second semester.
Then there's John Xuereb, a senior at West Chester (Pa.) University who will graduate in three years instead of four. The savings: $10,000, all thanks to summer classes.
Oh, and don't forget the "free lunch." This summer was the third year in a row West Chester offered free room and board to help lure 1,229 (up from 970 last year) undergraduates back for summer classes.
Higher education is notoriously slow to embrace change. Tradition says that September-to-May is the time to learn. But prompted by everything from improving bottom-line efficiency to making more courses available to all students, colleges and universities nationwide are tossing convention aside and offering a slew of new for-credit summer classes.
The swiftness with which summer is being utilized for more solid undergraduate studies suggests that a 12-month academic year could become widespread early next century, some say.
"Life-long learning means full-time, year-round class schedules," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington.
"A decade ago you might have only anecdotal examples of serious summer programs," Nassirian says. "But the higher-education community is responding." One indicator of the growth of summer programs is that about 80 percent of American public universities and colleges now offer summer enrollment to freshmen, compared with roughly 50 percent in the decade prior to that, says Stanley Henderson, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Cincinnati.
Some colleges have long had substantial summer programs for high school students. And most public universities long ago began renting empty dorms to pro football teams, conferences, or anyone who wanted a few soft summer courses. It was an easy way to earn extra cash. Yet with a surge of applications causing long waiting lists at some universities, the idea of raising cash and enrollment capacity by aiming summer classes at a schools' own undergraduates has taken off.
"It basically expands our university capacity," says Elizabeth Capaldi, provost of the University of Florida, of the computer system and expanded summer schedule. "We're not completely full in summer. If we had a bigger budget we would do more. We already turn down many students who are terrific. The more we can do with summer the better."
A few years ago, long lines of students waited to register for courses at the University of Florida, but often discovered that popular courses during the regular academic year were filled by the time they made it to the front. So the university put in place sophisticated computer enrollment-management software, not unlike that used by the airline industry, to fill seats at optimum time and price. Expanding course offerings across the summer to help smooth out bottlenecks was key.
Today the lines are gone. Students register in their dorm rooms using a Web site. The computer guarantees each will get a seat - although it may allocate them to summer classes at least one year, something public university students in Florida are required to do by law.
Dr. Capaldi and other University of Florida officials speak of emulating in higher education the "just-in-time" processes of American manufacturing that assure efficiency: minimizing inventory, maximizing productivity, and customizing products to the needs of consumers. Admitting new freshman year-round is key, so 2,259 were accepted last summer, and 135 last spring.
Besides making possible nontraditional enrollment seasons, Capaldi says expanding the university's summer offerings and adding computerized registration has allowed students more flexibility, too. Since many must work year-round to earn money for tuition, studying in the summer allows a student to spread course loads across the entire year. They adopt a "lesser level of intensity," she says. And because they pay per credit hour, the cost is the same.
Steven Katona, president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, says expanding his school's summer programs to include undergraduate classes was a step toward "intellectual continuity."
West Chester University officials also say their summer "free room and board" program has been a smash hit. It has pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the big plus is that it helps assure students they can graduate in four years even if they fall behind.
"It's giving them a chance to catch up or go a course or two ahead to help them graduate on time," says Thomas Purce, assistant vice president for student affairs at West Chester.
Mr. Xuereb agrees. "There's a lot packed into the three weeks or a month, so you have to be on the ball," he says. "I think more students should take advantage of the summer if they can. The free room and board doesn't hurt, either."
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