Community Colleges Cram Semesters In to Attract Students


History professor John McFarland knows when a class is getting too long--the slumping postures, the wandering eyes. Time for his standard trick: calling students to the podium to pick up lecture notes midway through a three-hour lecture.

Such scenes of endurance and fatigue are increasingly common on community college campuses. Driven by student demand and pressured by private schools that compress school into a few long nights or weekends, California colleges are lengthening classes and shortening terms in an attempt to boost enrollment.

That can mean stretching classes by a few minutes to shave two weeks from an 18-week semester, or crushing a term into five or six weeks. One Arizona college packs an 18-week semester course into two grit-testing weekends.


Traditional semesters are a social experience that schools can no longer afford, said Arizona teacher Robert Nixon, who conducts 10-hour-a-day weekend courses in the Pima Community College District.

“It’s hard to concentrate,” said Mike Daniels, a student at Golden West College in Huntington Beach who takes a four-hour history class that meets for five weeks on Fridays and Saturdays. “But history is something I don’t really enjoy. So why not get it over with?”

Among faculty, debate about altering calendars is not just about time. It goes to the heart of teaching philosophies, and ultimately tests views of what education should be.

Accelerated courses tend to cover less material because students have limited capacity for absorbing new ideas in a single sitting. On the other hand, they offer time for discussions and activities that are ill-suited to the 50-minute class but can help bring the material alive for students.

Teachers who favor densely packed lectures find their style too exhausting for themselves and the students in longer classes.

Three-hour lectures “are like torture,” said McFarland, who teaches at Sierra College near Roseville. “Like running barefoot on burning coals.”


Community colleges have traditionally operated at a slower pace than four-year institutions, starting with a high school model of 20-week semesters and daily classes. Later, 18-week semesters became the norm, and more recently, 16-week semesters have been introduced. Even more dramatically, colleges are launching a host of weekend and accelerated programs that allow students to finish the same units in courses of typically nine weeks or less.

The idea in all this schedule shifting is to keep total class hours the same to maintain accreditation.

Classes several hours long have been the norm in higher echelons of education--certain master’s of business administration programs for example, as well as upper division seminars, military training programs and professional schools.

Critics worry that a model pioneered for advanced students and mid-career professionals is not appropriate for many community college students, especially remedial ones.

“This is the worst thing in the world for our students,” said Mary J. McMaster, West Los Angeles College math professor, speaking of her school’s new, four-day week consisting of longer classes. “Small doses over a longer period are better.”

Students are embracing these new schedules with enthusiasm--despite drawbacks.

It’s easier to remain motivated in short-term classes, said Jennifer Johnson, 19, a Golden West student.

If that sometimes means classes are long and dreary, well, “isn’t it worth it to be bored and just get done with it?” she asked.

“It’s easier just to go once a week, then go home and study and just cram it in,” Paul Jimenez, 20, a Golden West student who works 25 hours a week in a grocery store. “I would cram anyway, so I might as well do it this way.”

Accelerated classes remain a small portion of total enrollment in the state’s community colleges--accounting for about 7% of enrollment. But they have grown by two-thirds in five years, and are one of the most important sources of new students in a system lagging far below historic enrollment peaks.

In the Los Angeles Community College District, nearly all of the small enrollment growth measured this fall was due to offerings of shorter classes.

Pima, the Tucson-area district that offers such classes as writing and psychology in two-weekend cram sessions, turned an enrollment downturn into an 11% growth rate over two years because of such offerings, said Jana Kooi, president of the district’s community campus. Forty percent of students are now on so-called nontraditional calendars, she said.

“The more of these classes we set up, the more people want them,” she said.

Private colleges have also capitalized on the trend. The University of Phoenix offers courses in four-hour doses over five weeks. The university has doubled revenues and tripled profits for its corporate parent in four years, and will soon launch a liberal arts program.

Richard Reck, who teaches four-hour classes at Golden West, is among those teachers who believe that students learn better in longer classes that allow more varied activities.

On a recent Saturday morning, he put the long hours to use to teach 20th century American history in all its colors, playing tapes of Duke Ellington, showing slides of Dorothea Lange photos, and organizing group discussions of Rudolph Valentino.

His students don’t seem to mind that Reck has hacked off about three chapters of the text to make the class fit the compressed format.

Reck’s activities make the time pass quickly. But algebra teacher Dennis Molgaard has fewer options in his 2 1/2-hour class at West Los Angeles College.

Florescent lights buzzed and the minute hand of the clock inched around the dial with loud clicks as Molgaard covered the board with X and Y axes.

In the front row, a young woman in a sweatshirt stopped writing. Her eyes fixed on a spot in space and her hand slowly loosened around her pencil until it fell to the floor. She scooted up just enough to pick it up, then slid down low in her chair again.

Molgaard has an understated style, but his explanations are clear and he displays flashes of humor. What he is, though, is a traditional teacher, a lecturer who uses every moment of class time to pack his students’ minds with information.

Such teachers tend to be the most frustrated by the creeping class length.

Remedial students especially, “need time and patience to live with materials,” said East Los Angeles College English professor Stanley Oropesa. He opposes a district plan to shorten the semester.

But proponents respond that the solution is simple: Don’t just lecture. Beyond this, they say, there is nothing magical about the community college’s traditionally, long, slow road to enlightenment.

Students should be allowed to get in and out of college quickly, said Carolyn Widener, English professor at West L.A. College, “instead of insisting on everything being like we are all going to Stanford”

The trend, said state Community College Chancellor Thomas J. Nussbaum, is likely to continue until some yet-unknown balance is reached.

The traditional semester will endure, he said. But with 80% of college students working, the task remains to make colleges find a place in hectic lives.

“A lot of kids are getting out of high school and going right into the work force,” he said. “They have just these little pockets of time.”