Blog Fiasco

January 11, 2012

Purdue’s trimester plan

Filed under: Musings — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 9:57 pm

The following is my opinion only. It does not represent the opinion of Purdue University, nor does it reflect any insider information (because I am the last to find out insider information).

Earlier today, Purdue University officially announced a plan to move to a trimester schedule. The summer session would be optional, but encouraged, with the intent of increasing enrollment from 6,000 to 20,000. Making this change, the administration argues, would save students money (because the summer session is cheaper) and allow them to graduate earlier. It would also benefit the University by allowing facilities to be more utilized.

In preparation for an upcoming column, Journal & Courier opinions editor Dave Bangert asked what the area might be like with so many extra students over the summer. Obviously, the addition of an additional 14,000 students would have an impact. My friend Dave at the Silver Dipper might be the most pleased, as he depends on summer sales to support his business and his family year-round. Other local businesses and outdoor events would probably see additional traffic.

It wouldn’t necessarily be great for everyone, though. I can foresee rental properties having some difficulty. Some student-focused apartments offer 9 month leases. During other three months, they do maintenance tasks that are difficult to do when the unit is occupied. Another group that would be negatively impacted is the IT staff in academic departments on campus. Having been in such a role, I know that summers are a critical time to work on large projects and upgrades that aren’t easy to get done. And families who like to spend time on campus might find a busier campus less inviting.

All of this assumes that the plan works and summer enrollment increases. This is by no means a given. Many obstacles will have to be overcome. According to Purdue’s Data Digest, the average salary for all faculty appointments is $93,200. Many faculty are on 10-month appointments, so asking them to teach summer classes would require a considerable increase in payroll. Some faculty may prefer to participate in summer field work instead of teaching classes, and it’s not clear what the plan is if the demand is higher than the available faculty.

The other financial concern is that students won’t be able to fund the summer session. Most financial aid awards are designed around a two-semester-with-summers-off schedule. Although Purdue has set aside several million dollars in financial aid, other funding sources will need to follow suit. Students who rely on summer jobs to save up money for the rest of the year will have to decide between skipping the summer term or taking on additional loan debt.

I’m not convinced that classes that upperclassmen and graduate students need will be any more available with a summer session. In the upper-division meteorology classes, we generally had about 12 students enrolled. This meant that each course was offered once per year. A summer session wouldn’t help with that. Graduate classes can be even more rare, sometimes offered only once every other year. Presumably, undergraduates can opt for summer sessions their first two years and return to a two-semester calendar when they get into more major-specific coursework.

Another issue left unaddressed, at least publicly, is the summer convention schedule. Purdue regularly hosts the state FFA convention, as well as other conferences and conventions. Hosting these events requires meeting space and space in residence halls. Will the campus still be able to support such events with extra students, and will event organizers continue to find Purdue an attractive option?

In the end, it doesn’t particularly matter what my cynical opinion is. Dr. Cordova has announced that the plan will begin this summer, with the intention of building to the 20,000 student goal over several years. I hope the plan works out for the benefit of the University’s students and budget, but I’m not yet convinced that it will.

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