Our Universities: The Tyranny of Calendars and Clocks

Making university education available to more people through extended operating schedules would be a positive move towards meeting the needs of learners who are parents, single or married, working full time jobs, or otherwise committed in ways that make 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, attendance unwieldy or impossible. A 21st century version of the 20th century TV show, Beat the Clock is needed.

So if a college education is indispensable, the challenge as I see it is how to make it more accessible.”

Gordon Gee, former president, Ohio State University


Distance education is a force in higher education for its omnipresence. It’s not a bargain; the cost per course is nearly equivalent to on-campus offerings, with the exception of the massively open online courses (MOOC’s), which are free. However completion rates are abysmal frequently in single digits. Maybe “free” translates into YGWYPF.

Distance education providers, typically for-profit institutions, capitalize operations by charging what the market will bear. Loan availability, coupled with state-aid programs, allows for-profit tuition and fee charges to be roughly equivalent to on-campus instruction, occasionally more. Omnipresence has powerful marketing value.  And, with no library, football team, dormitories, food service, police department, groundskeepers, extracurricular activity, or anything typical of campus offerings, costs to students are nearly identical.  Anywhere anytime accessibility is attractive.  People participate in distance education courses via Smartphone in cars at 65 MPH; I’ve seen it, not the speed of light but faster than a seminar seat.   High cost access when fueled by subsidized loans with no down payment, collateral, or possibility of repossession is even more seductive. And for-profits exploit convenience with zeal.

Calendars and clocks could be liberated in universities to create higher degrees of access.  Why, for example, are there not more course offerings between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.?  Such scheduling might allow nontraditional learners, tending to families and working full-time, opportunity to study.

Likewise, Monday through Friday schedules, at any time of day, may not be conducive to the frequent clients of distance education, working adults. If universities operated seven days a week, a four-year bachelor’s degree becomes a possibility through night and weekend classes.

Finally, why is a university open nine months a year with sparse summer schedules?  With buildings, heating, cooling, light, and parking accessible 365 days per year why limit operations to 3/4 time?  The logistics of seven-day-a-week, year-round offerings that meet diverse student needs are complex, but not insurmountable.  Vision and razor sharp focus are required.

Extending calendars and clocks for campus based courses is desirable for five reasons:

First:  Working adults could have geographically dispersed access to college with connections to personnel and peers on the ground.  Such access, while not anywhere anytime, is nearly universal.  And, this emotional support is legitimate and essential for many students. The 9% MOOC completion rate is evidence of placed-based study’s value.

Second:  Faculty and staff of every stripe would have appealing flexible work options on a seven-day, 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. schedule allowing better accommodation of home and work responsibilities. A benefit to the learner is equally beneficial for staff.

Third:  Efficiencies and utilization of facilities if thoughtfully adopted would be substantially higher. On many campuses room utilization coefficients are less than 50% and frequently lower early and late in the day or week.

Fourth:  Close partnerships with community colleges, in 2 + 2 and other compliant arrangements, with off-peak pricing potentials (No extras – football, health care, and everything else save the library) for night and weekend student costs for a bachelor’s degree could be reduced by 60%, maybe more, and core academic quality could be maintained.

Fifth: As our nation’s demographics change, public educational resources should be more broadly accessible. Working all day and studying at night would be a viable alternative for many who are confronted by the confounding and competing complexities of work, family, and study life. This was not an issue when 95% of the college attendees were between 18 and 22 years of age, white, males, and on the family dime in nearly free educational institutions.   The student body is changing. Growing needs for training in increasingly technical work settings are real: Universities should answer the call.

Traditions are wonderful but can also suffocate as the “student” environment changes. Our universities cannot effectively operate on a model that died decades ago.  It is a form of tyranny when clocks and calendars limit access and opportunity.

3 thoughts on “Our Universities: The Tyranny of Calendars and Clocks

  1. “Maybe “free” translates into YGWYPF.” Maybe “free” translates into “Where you treasure is, your heart will be also.”

  2. When I started at SIU, which I selected because of it’s beautiful campus, distance from Chicago while still costing only in-state tuition, and desired program availability, all students were required to enroll in at least one night (6-10 pm) class or one weekend (Sat am) class. This was a way to ensure that all students could get in all the required courses in 4 years, as well as to most efficiently utilize available facilities. Many facilities were left over military barracks, however it was not the facilities – but the faculty that made the university wonderful. Of course, we were also on a quarter system, girls had “hours,” motorcycles and motor scooters could park anywhere on campus, probably at least 1/2 of the boys on campus were there because of the military draft (Viet Nam), there was no Rec Center (though we had to pay for it every quarter), and there were about 27,000 students on campus. Campus was definitely more active at all times then.
    The changes since then are massive. Lots of beautiful new facilities, and almost everything else has changed. Oh, and when I started, tuition was about $80.00 per quarter, $320.00 per four quarters, though most kids only went three ($240.00), and worked in the summer, (median U S family income was $6,882.00). Current (2010) US family of 4 median income is about $75,000. In 1965 percent of family income, that would be about $2616 for a year’s tuition. See the problem?
    The culture and society to which we belong must recognize the need to support higher education at a much higher level than they do now, and until that happens, we’re kind of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
    I do appreciate your regular thoughts about higher education.

  3. Two observations: 1) I know that many of the programs already in place in the College of Education and Human Services on the SIU campus already use night and weekend meetings to accommodate adults who work during the day. I believe there are similar program offerings in business here on campus. 2) The low completion rate of MOOCs is likely tied to the low investment in the outcome of the course that participants have. Participants didn’t pay for it so they have the modern perception that something that is free either isn’t worth much or isn’t important. When life gets busy, the MOOC is the first thing to fall off the schedule because it didn’t cost anything. Wal-Mart’s efforts to sell in Japan remind me of this. Low price = low perception of quality in the mind of the Japanese consumer, so they didn’t buy what Wal-Mart was selling at lower prices than other stores even though it was the same set of products. I think MOOCs have that same stigma. As I understand it, those who complete MOOCs often receive a certificate documenting completion but this is not the same as receiving college credit for the course. If MOOCs offered college credit, perhaps that would positively impact the perception of these courses.

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