Graphic comparing the quarter to semester system. Credit: Jacob Boyd / Mustang News

In October 2021, Cal Poly SLO officially announced it would change to the semester system, set to begin Fall 2026. The conversion has since been met with mixed reactions from the campus community. 

In June 2019, research was published by three individuals, including former Cal Poly economics professor Stefanie Fischer. In this research, the team outlined primarily significant and adverse impacts of the switch from quarter to semester system. As Fischer described, their work had “no real agenda” other than “seeing what’s good for students.”

Fischer is now the Advanced Assistant Professor of Economics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She published her study in the IZA-Institute of Labor Economics, which is “an independent non-profit research institution running the world’s largest network of Fellows and Affiliates,” as stated on the organization’s website. In the 2019 research publication, Fischer outlines three prominent reasons why the quarter system is increasingly more beneficial for students’ overall success than the semester system. 

First, Fischer lists the “unexpected” and “negative relationship between the semester system and on-time graduation” as a tenant to the research’s argument that the semester system is less ideal for students.

According to Fischer, looking at the cohort she studied, the switch to the semester system “seems to increase time to the degree.” However, Fischer said that she “[doesn’t find the effect on ever graduating in her studies,” which she finds “reassuring.”

She cites the decreased likelihood of graduating on time, less scheduling flexibility for students and increased cost for students due to more time spent in school; since there is less opportunity to alternate between courses, it is more difficult for students to figure out what they enjoy doing in school.

“The cost of one-year tuition at a four-year public institution in 2014 was $18,110, and the average starting salary for 2014 graduates was $26,217,” Fischer points out in her research, using statistics from a National Center for Education Statistics report. She breaks down the cost for each student to be $2 million per year at an average-sized university.

Fischer has found that establishing longer terms where students can take more classes and, in theory, have the opportunity to graduate faster makes scheduling more complex and can “potentially create a suboptimal learning environment.”

Fischer told Mustang News that schools should make sure they offer “big gateway prerequisite courses to majors more frequently.” This would more frequently reassure students that they could get into the classes they need and therefore stay on track with their majors.

Fischer further emphasized the difficulty of switching between majors in the semester system and how this inevitably leads to a later graduation date. She said it is easy to get stuck in prerequisite courses within the semester system, and therefore struggle to establish a personal fondness for the major.

She also said a semester system should be accompanied with “frequent evaluations,” so students don’t get lost in the material that’s being spread over a more extended period of time.

Fischer and her team also looked into how summer employment affects students on the semester versus the quarter system.

“We thought maybe that was going to be a silver lining, like well, they’re taking longer to graduate, but they’re like now having a higher probability of, you know, securing these kinds of internships that would … provide them a good pathway into a job after graduation,” Fischer said.

Some students have voiced opposition to the upcoming switch. Business freshman Dylan Davis is one of them.

“Personally I’m not in support of the semester system, because you have to take less classes, and it’s drawn out,” Davis said. “On the quarter system you have more flexibility to take more classes … and there’s more time to study abroad.”

For faculty, Fischer said one concern is that professors who conduct research would favor working at other universities instead. That’s because quarter systems allow professors to “stack their teaching,” which Fischer described as teaching a lot of classes for one or two quarters, then having one quarter with a lighter course load, allowing them to devote more time to their academic research.

Fischer said this may be difficult to do on a semester system and could make Cal Poly less attractive for faculty. 

“That might not necessarily be a bad thing, either,” Fischer said. “But I could see it, maybe changing the type of person that’s drawn to that job.”

Fischer applies her research to Cal Poly’s switch to the semester system, but said the perspective she shared in her publication remains objective, as she no longer holds ties to the CSU system.

Cal Poly’s transition to semesters won’t necessarily be detrimental. Fischer said these shortcomings could be relieved with precautionary measures from Cal Poly, such as making sure required classes have more seats available and are offered each semester, including summer.

“There are ways we as an institution … could help support students and mitigate these kinds of changes,” Fischer said.