Why one California university leader thinks year-round operations will aid enrollment

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo recently announced that it will become the first public university in the state to shift to year-round operations starting summer 2025.

The change would give students the option of starting in the summer and taking their academic break during a different term, and it would allow the university to admit more students per year.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said other universities have had success with this model. 

“Secondary to growth (in enrollment), I think we’re going to see student success,” Armstrong said. 

Taking inspiration from schools that have had year-round operations for years, like Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the University of Waterloo in Canada, Armstrong said he hopes to put a “Cal Poly twist” on the idea to benefit all students. 

Beginning next year, students will be able to choose to start either in summer or fall during the application process. Faculty and staff will also be able to choose which terms they will work.

Armstrong said students and faculty will have enough information to make an informed decision about what their schedule will look like and “they will know what they’re getting into.”

If a student opts to start in summer, they might have a greater chance of being admitted to Cal Poly, which currently has an admit rate of 28% and is highly impacted with more applications than available spaces, Armstrong said.

“We’re not changing our standards,” Armstrong said. “What we’re doing is using year-round to open up more spaces so more students can get in.”

Starting the year in the summer would be different from simply taking summer classes or taking a couple of classes in the last few weeks of summer through summer start programs to help students adjust to college.

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo President Jeffrey D. Armstrong

Students who start their year in the summer would have full course offerings equivalent to what is offered during the other terms, and classes would be for a full term, according to Armstrong.

When asked about the expected cost of the change to year-round operations, Armstrong said, “Overall, we believe the investments required will not be significantly out of line as what would be required for enrollment growth through traditional non-year-round operations means.”

Following the year-round model, students, including freshmen, would have more opportunities to participate in “high-impact practices” such as internships, study abroad and undergraduate research, according to Armstrong. 

“We know when students participate in high-impact practices, it enhances their retention, it enhances their chance to graduate,” he said. 

A student who chooses to start in summer could then study abroad or do an internship during the fall term and come back for spring term, for example. 

Armstrong said students could also decide to take classes every term and graduate earlier, though this would not be required.

It’s about “flexibility for all students, really,” he said. “I think it’ll be very positive, and it’ll expand access to high-impact activities. We want it to be more equitable.”

Financial aid would still cover a full academic year (three quarters or two semesters) no matter when a student starts, Armstrong added. 

In an ideal world, Armstrong said about a third of students would start in summer, though starting out, the numbers might be more like 15-20%. 

“It’s allowing us to grow, [and] it’s taking the number of students in the regular academic year down, so it’s relieving some of the pressure,” Armstrong said.

Cal Poly began discussing this shift in 2019, but it was delayed because of the to the pandemic. The change was then set to begin summer 2024 but delayed again after Cal Poly met its enrollment goals for the year by increasing course availability, allowing more students to enroll full time. 

As college enrollment rates increase, universities have been trying to find ways to do so without increasing costs too much. In 1999, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a report recommending universities switch to year-round operations. 

Cal Poly is the only public university in California to make this switch, though other schools are making different efforts to increase their enrollment and expand summer instruction.

According to Hazel Kelly, CSU spokesperson, other CSU campuses are also considering ways to offer more flexible academic calendars.

“The Chancellor’s Office is working with those universities as they consider a range of implications of alternative calendars including student enrollment, campus budgets, financial aid, accreditation, labor agreements and facilities, among others,” Kelly said.

California State University, Long Beach is working on expanding enrollment during the fall and spring semesters, focusing on “underserved majors with available space,” according to CSULB spokesperson Gregory Woods. 

“To bolster enrollment, our strategy is to enhance retention rates and average-units load for current students, and to expand the class size of the incoming first-time, first-year student level,” Woods said. 

San Diego State University, which has the second-lowest acceptance rate of all the CSUs and is also highly impacted, does not have a plan to move to year-round operations like Cal Poly but is exploring other ways of increasing enrollment, SDSU spokesperson La Monica Everett-Haynes said.

“We have, however, implemented efforts toward summer enrollment and, overall, continue to see high levels of enrollment growth during both the academic and summer session periods,” Everett-Haynes said.

The University of California has similarly been working to expand summer enrollment without moving to the year-round model. 

“Every UC campus is committed to expanding capacity and enhancing educational equity for California students through overall enrollment growth as well as more nontraditional approaches, including efforts to improve timely graduation and to expand online, summer and off-campus opportunities,” said Ryan King, UC spokesperson. 

According to the “Building 2030 Capacity Report” issued in 2022, UC has turned to increasing online course offerings and financial aid for summer to help meet their enrollment goals. King noted that the report shows a spike in summer enrollment in 2020, and “UC campuses recognized this surge as an opportunity to increase summer enrollment and capacity over the long term by growing the number and mix of online and impacted fall-winter-spring course offerings.”

Cal Poly decided that switching to the year-round model, and not just expanding their regular summer offerings, would be the most beneficial. 

Armstrong said this shift to year-round operations will benefit all students, not just the ones who choose to start in the summer, because classes will be offered more often throughout the year, there will be more opportunities to participate in high-impact activities and the campus community will grow.

As part of the effort to increase enrollment, Cal Poly is working on building more on-campus housing so that all first- and second-year students can live on campus, a project that “will result in several thousand beds added between now and 2030,” Armstrong said. 

Armstrong also expects the switch to year-round operations, along with increased financial aid, to help Cal Poly’s efforts to increase diversity. 

As Cal Poly begins this shift, students will only be able to choose between summer or fall starts, and only incoming students will get this option. Armstrong said he hopes everyone will have this option in the future, and that a spring start will also be available.

“We think it’s going to be very significant,” Armstrong said. “Our evidence from polling and asking questions of prospective parents and students shows that the interest is very high in the year-round concept.”

Ashley Bolter is a fourth-year journalism major and French and ethnic studies minor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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