For some college students, the idea of year-round classes has appeal.
"That would be awesome," said UW-Madison junior Michael Van Voorhis of taking engineering courses during the normally slow months between spring and fall. The chemical engineering major from Minneapolis took an organic chemistry class over the summer two years ago and wishes the university had offered a lot more required engineering classes during the summer.
And he's sure his friends would prefer to spend summer taking classes to get ahead in their degree program "instead of going home and doing nothing," he said.
For others, doing nothing, at least school-related, sounds pretty good.
"I'd rather have the summer off to relax and hit the books hard once the school year starts," said junior Ashley Jensen of Fort Atkinson. She took a physics class last summer to prepare for her medical school admissions test and found it grueling to fit in around her two jobs. Plus, it was hard to stay motivated, she said, passing friends relaxing on the terrace as she headed to the library.
It's against those contrasting views that UW-Madison officials will start formal discussions this week with a goal of increasing the number of courses the university offers and students it enrolls during the summer term. Currently, about 13,500 students attend summer school, a third the size of the more popular fall and spring semesters.
Officials say that the ramping up — one administrator suggested doubling enrollment in five years while others cautioned growth may be slower — likely won't dramatically change the campus culture since most students would live off campus anyway and many classes would be online. But they acknowledge that the shift will require some adjustments logistically and philosophically for students and faculty.
"Part of this is starting to think what it may mean to have a 12-month calendar because a lot of our thinking now is around a nine-month calendar," said Jeff Russell, vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of continuing studies.
Katherine Duren, an associate dean in the university's continuing studies department, will oversee the proposed expansion in regular meetings with associate deans from the university's colleges and schools. She said that, while plans are still in development, short-term changes likely will include more summer courses for undergraduates in two high-interest subjects — engineering and business — and a significant jump in online course offerings.
Russell said the university will look at increasing class offerings for current students as well as creating new opportunities for nontraditional students such as teachers and other professionals eager to fit in classes to advance a career or change course and start a new one.
Experts say the shift could make sense at the state's flagship university.
"As an economist, I applaud the move," said Richard Vedder, director of the national Center for College Affordability and Productivity and advocate for free-market reforms to higher education.
He said it could save undergraduate students significant room-and-board expenses by cutting a semester or even a year off the time it takes to get a degree and get into the workforce, an approach not universally loved by students.
"Everyone says college is the best four years of life," said junior kinesiology major Caroline Wickler of Pewaukee. "I don't want to shorten it."
Vedder also said it could make sense for the university to squeeze more use — and tuition dollars — out of classrooms and laboratories, some of which spend the summer collecting dust. But he cautioned that past summer growth strategies at some schools failed because of resistance from faculty and some students.
UW-Madison officials point to a different, more successful example: fellow Big Ten member Michigan State University. While the school's enrollment is significantly lower than UW-Madison's during the school year, it enrolls about 10,000 more students during the summer thanks in part to an increase of at least 15 percent since 2003. That jump has come largely by adding online courses and study-abroad opportunities, said Linda Stanford, associate provost for academic services at Michigan State.
Scott Owczarek, who's been registrar at UW-Madison since January 2011, worked at Michigan State as associate registrar during the summer term expansion and is involved with the process to grow summer enrollment at UW-Madison, as well.
Vedder cautioned that if undergraduates abandon other things they typically do during the summer — internships, study-abroad trips and jobs — it could hurt their career prospects.
"You could end up with 21-year-old college graduates with a degree but no real work experience," he said.
Duren said the university recognizes the importance of internships and other summer experiences, and intends to offer courses that complement, not replace, what students already do.
"A focus is to get more degree-seeking students to see summer as a regular part of their progression toward a degree," she said.