California State University (CSU) Chancellor Joseph Castro expects Cal Poly to transition to semesters by the start of the 2025-26 academic year, according to an email sent out by University President Jeffrey Armstrong.
“Almost a decade ago the CSU Chancellor’s Office asked all quarter-calendar campuses to transition to a semester calendar,” Armstrong said in an Oct. 18 campuswide email. “Today, Cal Poly is the last CSU campus remaining on a quarter system.”
As opposed to quarter terms, a semester schedule consists of two, 15-week terms in the fall and the spring. Students would take an average of 15 units each semester, and classes typically start in late August and end in May.
In an email to university faculty, Academic Affairs said they will spend the rest of this school year and next summer gathering “best practices” from CSU campuses that have recently made the change, as well as creating plans for overcoming challenges specific to Cal Poly.
Castro, who was appointed as Chancellor in 2020, said that over the past decade, five CSU campuses have successfully transitioned from quarters to semesters: CSU Bakersfield, CSU Los Angeles, CSU San Bernardino, CSU East Bay and Cal Poly Pomona.
“Their experiences have confirmed that although the transition will require work, it is possible to do it while taking the interests and concerns of all stakeholders into account,” Castro said.
According to Academic Affairs, a conversion plan is expected to begin in Fall 2022.
“Over the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, we will need to map our curriculum to the semester system and design our current and new courses to account for this change,” Academic Affairs said.
Come the 2024-25 school year, those curriculum plans will be reviewed by the Academic Senate, according to Academic Affairs.
In an Oct. 13 letter to Armstrong, Castro echoed something he says Armstrong has stated on many occasions: “Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing – Ready-Day-One experience will not be complete until Cal Poly better represents the demographics of California.”
A few years ago Armstrong was a “strong advocate for retaining the quarter system,” Castro said in his letter. When the semester debate picked up in 2012, there were six of the 23 CSU campuses on quarter calendars.
Now, Castro said, the issue extends beyond the Cal Poly campus community.
“If this were an issue that only affected your campus, I would be inclined to leave it alone,” Castro said. “But because the question of Cal Poly’s calendar affects students at other CSU campuses and at California’s community colleges, I cannot treat it as a purely local concern.”
The CSU system will pay for the vast majority of the direct costs to achieve this transition as they’ve done in the past.
Semester transition for students
Armstrong and Castro noted that aligning with community colleges was one reason it’s important to switch to semesters.
Of the 116 community colleges in California, 113 are currently on the semester system. For transfers coming from semester-system community colleges, Castro said Cal Poly’s semester system would help facilitate a more equitable transition with course requirements and credits, while also creating opportunities for dual enrollment.
“I share [Castro’s] concern about Cal Poly being perceived – rightly or wrongly – as needing to address issues of equitable access and student success,” Armstrong said.
Business finance senior Ian Linde transferred from Santa Rosa Junior College to Cal Poly at the beginning of the 2020 fall quarter. Linde said the transition was somewhat difficult, mainly because of the pandemic, but has found communities on campus and in Greek life.
“For me, junior college was really a stepping-stone to Cal Poly,” Linde said. “I knew I wanted to go here and decided to make the move even with COVID-19 going on.”
Linde said that going from semesters to extremely fast-paced quarters was a huge transition and not an easy one.
“So many first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented-minority students begin their careers at a community college and then transfer to a CSU campus to finish their baccalaureate degree,” Castro wrote. “Every barrier we can remove, consistent with providing excellent education, means that equitable access to the CSU is improved.”
Castro’s decision to use semesters is also backed by the benefit to students coming from semester-based high schools.
For biological sciences freshman Caleb Barajas, the quarter system’s fast pace is a double edged sword — it allows students to “learn a good amount of information” quickly and get out of a class sooner if they don’t like it. But at the same time, Barajas said adjusting from a Zoom-based semester system in high school to the quarter system was difficult and can be improved with Cal Poly’s semester conversion.
“I feel it was a real jump in pace,” Barajas said. “I believe a semester system will really help the high school to college learning transition.”
The university has previously noted two benefits of quarters: the fast pace and an ability to take a wide variety of classes. Castro said that to help keep those benefits intact, courses can be “broken into shorter lengths during a given semester.”
One example of this is Cal Poly’s current summer quarter system, which offers classes that are five, eight and 10 weeks long.
“Students would of course not be set back in their academic progress, but would have their units converted from quarter to semester units and academic departments would be careful in planning programs to ensure full coverage of the relevant material,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said some fast-paced courses will be retained by having terms of variable lengths, similar to what summer classes already look like.
“Faculty would spend the same number of hours in the classroom over the academic year as they do now, would have a similar number of minutes of lecture to prepare each week, would probably do less grading (two sets of exams rather than three), and would no longer have to spend Spring Break frantically preparing for a new term,” Armstrong said.
Cal Poly history lecturer Jason Linn said he was able to find both pros and cons for the situation.
“Summer of 2025 I will be busy revising lectures and prezis,” Linn said. “No one will be happy about the shortened Summer 2025 break.”
However, in its entirety, Linn said that he indeed looks forward to it. He expects short term pain, but long term benefits after the first year.
When talking about the change to his courses in a semester system, Linn said he was hopeful.
“Each quarter I memorize between 150 and 200 students’ names — that is a Herculean task,” Linn said. “But, it will become easier when I only need to do it twice a year. Same thing with grading final exams and research papers, it will be nice to only do it two times a year, instead of three.”
Linn said he is excited for the extended courses and is ready to create new lectures on topics he wasn’t originally able to add in the quarter system due to time constraints.
For students who will be affected by this change, Linn said that those in the classes of 2026 through 2028 will have to “bite the bullet.”
Linn also said he believed there would perhaps be a drop in enrollment and increase in retirements leading up to Fall 2025.
Linn said he’s also worried about seniors scrambling to get all their required classes in.
“In the fall, I often get seniors who need my class to graduate but cannot enroll because the class is full from freshmen block enrolled in it,” Linn said. “I tell these seniors to chill because the class will be offered in the winter. Now, I worry that the required class[es] will only be offered once a year in the fall.”
The semester switch benefits university administration, too, according to Castro. Tasks like calculating academic progress, completing financial aid and hiring part-time faculty will be done twice a year rather than three times and will be more aligned with the other campus calendars.
“As stewards of public funds, and of funds paid by our students as tuition and fees, we have a duty to be as efficient and prudent as possible,” Castro said.
Carley Epple contributed reporting to this article.