In defense of quarters

Photo by Casey Gomez

All over campus, a feeling is just starting to settle in. If you listen closely, you can hear it as it slinks its way into students’ minds, manifesting itself as a continuous stream of sighs, complaints, yawns and, in extreme cases, the occasional fit of sobbing.

The malady from which students — and, sometimes, faculty — are beginning to suffer is, of course, the academic fatigue which results from taking the same classes for four straight months. As we enter the middle of the semester, neither the end nor the beginning is in sight, and we begin to wonder how much more we can cram into our heads. 

It’s all enough to make you wonder, wouldn’t it be great if our terms were about half the length that they are now? We would just be wrapping up our classes, preparing for exams and looking forward to a short break between this term and the next. 

Such a system has a name, and it once was not all that uncommon. The quarters system — as opposed to Tech’s current semester system — was once more popular in higher education than it is today. Based on data from the National Association of College Stores — yes, that is a real organization — prior to 1991, 38 percent of colleges used a quarters system, while by 2001, that number had dropped to 30 percent. Tech itself contributed to this decline, ditching quarters in 1999. 

Because the quarters system has become so rare, the issue of which system Tech would best be served by is hardly a hot-button one. Students are unlikely to even know anyone who goes to a school that uses quarters, let alone to have experienced the system firsthand. Furthermore, the number of professors who were at Tech prior to the implementation of the semester system — while not yet all that small — decreases every year. 

Still, the issue should be debated. At an institution like Tech where the majority of students are taking difficult STEM course loads, the quarter system has serious benefits. Shorter terms reduce burnout and help students learn more effectively towards the end of courses. For evidence of this, just ask your professors — those who were around the experience quarters will likely reminisce nostalgically about how much easier it was to keep students engaged.

Quarters offer other benefits as well, with perhaps the most significant one being that the system puts summers on an equal footing with the rest of the academic calendar. Rather than trying to force a full semester’s worth of material into a much shorter summer term, quarters allow courses in the summer to be administered in exactly the same way they are in the fall or spring. This provides greater scheduling flexibility for students who do internships or co-ops, and it promotes a more uniform educational experience across the student body. Students who took a class in the summer would not be put at a significant disadvantage over those who took it in the fall.

I should finish this piece by noting that there is probably no chance that we will ever get to go back to a quarters system. The reason why Tech implemented semesters in the first place is because the University System of Georgia required all of its member institutions to, and Tech would almost certainly not be allowed to return to quarters without the entire system converting back, which would be an extremely difficult feat to achieve. What’s more, just restructuring the curriculum and calendar at Tech to fit quarters would be extremely difficult, and no matter how much it might benefit students and professors, the administration would be unlikely to try it. 

Still, when you feel completely beaten down at the midway point of a semester, wishing that you could just take your final exams and move on to something new, it’s nice to think that there’s a chance.