During the summer months, the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, like most across the country, sits half empty.
The number of students who sign up for summer classes is about 45 percent of those who attend in the fall and spring.
It is wasted capacity that might be used to UNO's benefit as officials seek to increase enrollment and to better serve students, Chancellor John Christensen said Wednesday in his annual State of the University address.
“We're not using our assets as well as we might,” he said. “I think it is our absolute responsibility to explore this option.”
Christensen said he would launch a pilot program this spring to investigate whether UNO could provide students three full semesters a year, putting the summer term closer to par with the fall and spring.
By enabling UNO to better use its existing space and parking, the plan could help UNO meet the campus goal of a one-third enrollment increase by 2020, he said.
Growth — in enrollment, image and quality — was Christensen's theme Wednesday. He stressed a vision of UNO as a “premiere metropolitan university.”
“The timing couldn't be better, nor the stars aligned more perfectly, to implement an aggressive agenda and direction for the future,” he said.
He said several steps had been taken to prepare UNO for more students — construction of new facilities, transitioning to a doctoral-granting research university, moving to NCAA Division I athletics and expanded student housing, among others.
A plan to recruit and retain more students will be in place by January, Christensen said. The student affairs department has been reorganized to better align recruitment, orientation, admissions, financial aid and other student-support functions. Other efforts include intensified collaboration with community colleges and improvements to advising and career services.
Christensen's emphasis on year-round college is part of an increasing discussion nationally about ways to control higher education costs and to better leverage existing resources.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has had a year-round academic calendar since 1973.
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler proposed such a calendar in March. Some California State University campuses have made the change.
Stephen Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is a longtime advocate of year-round academic calendars. He said it would mean most students could graduate in three years and accrue less debt.
“We can, if we put our minds to it, use our facilities and our time far more effectively,” he said.
However, he said, his own faculty balked, refusing to even consider the idea in 2004.
Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington think tank, said he sees few downsides to better using campus buildings and equipment.
Although a year-round teaching load could detract from faculty research, Vedder said the problem could be resolved by hiring adjunct instructors and nontenured professors.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether students would take advantage of a summer semester, he said. Many students use their summers for internships, study abroad and other experiences that give them a better shot in the job market.
UNO students David McMullen, a junior psychology major, and Zach Silva, a professional aviation major, would be interested.
“I'd be OK with that — if I could get done with my degree faster,” McMullen said.
Silva, who is in the Air National Guard, said he's going to fall behind a semester when he takes basic training. He would be eager to make up that work.
Others expressed doubts.
“I don't think it would be well-liked among undergraduates,” said Cody Barnes, a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in athletic training. “They need that break, to see their family and to have an opportunity to work and make the money they need to get through the year.”
Christensen and B.J. Reed, UNO's chief academic officer, acknowledged the difficulties. One key question is how Pell grants and other forms of financial aid would be distributed during a three-semester year.
But Reed said UNO is asking academic deans to identify programs as good candidates for the spring, summer and fall semesters. Currently, UNO offers one 13-week session during the summer and four shorter sessions of five to six weeks. Fall and spring sessions are 15 weeks.
Reed said he envisions a system in which faculty teach two out of every three semesters and use the third for research or other activities. Faculty compensation would need to be weighted, he said. Faculty members currently are paid an “overload” bonus — 9 percent of their base salary — for teaching in the summer.
Christensen said he hopes to help students like those he saw as a speech pathology instructor who delayed graduation while they waited for an open slot in a practicum at a hospital. “It may not fit for one person, but it could be an absolute lifesaver for another,” he said.
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