In higher education in the United States, academic terms are divided into either quarters or semesters, with quarter hours typically being weighted with less credit than semester hours. There are advantages and disadvantages to each academic system. There are also complicating factors, such as when a student needs to transfer hours from one academic system to the other.
Quarter hours are computed on a quarterly academic system. Under the quarter system, the academic year is divided into three quarters: fall, winter and spring, generally 10 weeks each. Most academic programs do not consider summer as part of the regular academic year, although courses are frequently offered during the summer. Quarter systems are often scheduled so that the academic term ends before major holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah or Easter and Passover.
Advantages of Quarter Hours
Quarter hours allow for a greater variety of courses to be offered within an academic program. Many students are more willing to venture outside their majors within a quarter system because each class bears less weight against their overall academic records. In scheduling classes under a quarter system, it is easier for students to enroll in upper-level courses as undergraduates in a quarter system than in a semester system. Additionally, for less enjoyable classes, the duration of the term is shorter than for semester hours.
Semester hours are computed on a semester academic system, with two academic terms per year: generally fall and either winter or spring, generally 15 weeks each. As with the quarter system, the summer is not considered a standard part of the academic year under a semester system. When classes are scheduled during the summer, the term is much shorter than the standard semester. Semester systems are frequently scheduled so that classes begin in late August or early September, and the end of the school year occurs in late May, often before Memorial Day.
Advantages of Semester Hours
Semester hours allow for more in-depth study of a subject as a result of the longer terms. Students may also be able to devote more out-of-class hours to a particular subject with a semester hour system. Additionally, students may feel less pressured with an academic calendar based on semester hours because classes may be scheduled for fewer days per week than with quarter hours. By ending classes in May, semester hour systems allow students to get a jump on the summer job market.
Transferring Between Quarter and Semester Hours
There can be complications for a student who transfers from a school with one academic system to a school using another academic system or students who apply for graduate programs that use different systems from the undergraduate program. However, most academic institutions have standardized conversion charts they use in computing academic hours when considering a student's transcript. Conversion works along many of the same principles involved as when converting the credits from a foreign transcript to an American university system.
Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.