Is it Time to Cast Off the Tradition of Three-Month Summer Vacations?

In the United States, tradition dictates that we have summers off from school. Starting in childhood, we start school in the fall, take a break for the holidays, finish in the spring, and play (or work) over the summer. Only when we leave school and enter the workforce do we leave our three-month break behind. 

The tradition dates back to the 19th century, when school reformers wanted to homogenize urban and rural schedules. Before then, rural students took off the spring and fall to plant and harvest. Wealthier urban students took off the summer for vacation. For various reasons, summer won out. 

But cracks are appearing in this long-standing routine; not everyone prefers the traditional schedule. The year-round schedule is gaining in popularity. For example, in Wake County, North Carolina, more than a third of elementary schools have year-round schedules. 

The need for flexible schedules is more pronounced at the postsecondary level. College is no longer just for recent high school graduates; in North Carolina’s community college system, the third-largest system in the nation, the average student is 28. College students of the older, “non-traditional” variety need flexibility. They often have steady jobs, families, and other priorities, and they would prefer the option to finish as quickly as possible, without semester-long breaks. Does it really make sense that they are tied to the same academic calendar as their younger peers who prefer summers off? 

Thanks to a proposal in the North Carolina General Assembly, students there may soon be unshackled from the constraints of the standard school year. It’s pretty straightforward: let community colleges offer their courses over the summer, not just in the fall and spring semesters. 

A 2013 law allows the state’s 58 publicly funded community colleges to offer classes in some fields. Those are STEM courses, health care courses, technical education, and developmental education. However, most summer classes are not authorized for state funding. 

Two different bills extending the community college school year were proposed in the North Carolina House of Representatives this year. The first, H.B. 15, was introduced in January. It proposed funding summer courses that are transferable to all 16 UNC colleges for general education credit.  

The second, H.B. 579, was introduced in April and expanded on the first. It called for funding all curriculum courses (which are any courses for which students earn academic credit)—not just general education transfer courses.  

Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Stam sponsored H.B. 15, while Rep. Allen McNeill, chair of the house community college committee, sponsored H.B. 579. Both Stam and McNeill are Republicans. 

In anticipation of its passage, and because it would require additional funding from the state, the proposal was recently sent to the House appropriations committee. There, the budget bill, H.B. 97, was amended to give the community colleges an additional $17 million for year-round education.  

Rep. McNeill expects the policy to pass, as he has not encountered any opposition to it. “I believe it will survive the senate and stay in the budget,” McNeill added. “And I think it will become law at whatever time we finish the budget and the paint dries.” 

“Sometimes you don’t know necessarily about opposition until the last minute, but I’m not aware of anybody that’s against it,” he said.  

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory gave year-round education a big push forward by including it in his budget proposal early this year. “The governor felt like it was important to accelerate the talent pipeline and ensure that community colleges, the state’s main workforce development engines, were in year-round ‘production,’ just like our state’s businesses,” said Mary Shuping in an email to the Pope Center. She is the director of government relations at the North Carolina Community College System.  

Despite the need for initial appropriations, both Shuping and McNeill said they expect year-round funding to save the state money. McNeill told the Pope Center, “You know, it’s just a win-win situation, I just can’t believe it’s never been done until now.” 

One likely saving will be through better use of building space that currently sits empty during the summer months.  

Additionally, community colleges are cheaper than the state universities for taxpayers and students alike. The state spends about $13,000 on each UNC student and approximately $5,000 on each community college student annually. For in-state students, tuition is $803 for a three-credit course at UNC-Chapel Hill and $216 per course at Wake Technical Community College, a 73 percent savings per student.  

There is an extra benefit for University of North Carolina students, beyond saving money: they can take transferable courses over the summer to speed up finishing their degrees. Getting students out the door more quickly and into the skilled workforce also makes the proposal a likely win for taxpayers. 

Another group that could benefit from year-round funding is the faculty. Leaders in the community college system have often lamented the low pay of North Carolina community college instructors, particularly compared with those in other Southern states. Year-round funding would permit them to earn more money by teaching in summer as well as the other two semesters. 

“Those that want to teach on through the summer, this will allow them to teach more classes and obviously make more money,” McNeill said. Presumably, instructors would not be required to teach over the summer, so those drawn to the profession for its long summer vacation would still have that freedom. 

McNeill said, “I have talked extensively with the community college people and they are excited; this is one of the best things that they think has happened to them in a long time.” 

But if year-round funding is such a good idea, why was not already in place? 

McNeill said the articulation agreement between the state’s two public higher education systems needed to be amended to allow summer courses to transfer. Community colleges and state universities have articulation agreements to determine which courses can be transferred for credit, and it takes time to devise and approve changes to the agreements. Still, for such a seemingly sensible and nonpartisan issue, one would expect a relatively quick and smooth process. 

Mary Shuping says year-round funding has been sought before on a smaller scale, but never materialized. “The primary benefits of providing curriculum instruction year-round aren’t new,” she said. “There have been limited instances in the past where the General Assembly has provided some funding to support summer funding, but those funds tended to be cut when fiscal times got tight.” 

She added that “changing student demands” have made year-round instruction necessary today. Students, especially older students, “do not need or want to take the summer off,” she said. 

There are some possible downsides to year-round funding. For example, the $17 million increase is a small percentage of the overall budget—about 1.5 percent—but if the legislature is wrong about year-round funding attracting new students, it is a lot of money to waste. 

Rep. McNeill acknowledged the risk involved. “You’re funding something to a certain level and you don’t know that the students will actually take advantage of it,” McNeill said. “We’ll probably need a year or two of data to determine what the actual need, or whatever you want to call it, is going to be.” 

Still, the potential benefits greatly outweigh the risks. North Carolina can and should take the lead in offering a more flexible calendar to students, with other states following suit. The goal should not be to do away with summer vacation or make the summer term mandatory, but to at least provide students the option of taking classes over the summer. There is demand for it in North Carolina and elsewhere, and community colleges should meet it.