I recently meet someone attended a US school still using the quarter system.

Most of the country uses semesters, and I've heard several theories as to why, the most popular being that the semester system is easier for university to administrate. I've also heard it is so the university breaks will line up better with K-12 school break schedule.

No one has ever explained to me why semesters or more efficient, or more family friendly. I only know 1 person educated with the quarter system in the last 10 years. Is there a reason most US universities adopted semesters?

  • 2
    Note that many universities (like the UC system) remain on quarters. And I have direct experience that the alignment of one kid's college semester with another's K-12 schedule is not very close at all...
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 18, 2016 at 16:46
  • Dartmouth adopted (and maintains) the quarter system since it makes better use of the physical campus, allowing more students with less infrastructure. Students have a schedule that requires that some of their "time off" be in Fall and Winter terms so that the campus is nearly always full. Professors also have an expectation that they will, at least occasionally, teach the Summer term rather than always having it free.
    – Buffy
    Jul 6, 2021 at 15:00
  • @Buffy: This might work well for Dartmouth because Hanover is one of those places people would want to be in summer :) Jul 6, 2021 at 18:39

2 Answers 2


I'll let someone else address why schools ended up on semesters rather than quarters, but I'd note that there are some benefits to being on the "standard" academic calendar, whichever it happens to be:

  • Many internship programs are built around the standard academic calendar.
  • This is particularly extreme for law schools, where the internship experience is both very important and very structured. Even schools on the quarter system run their law schools on the semester system.
  • Similarly, there are many one semester thematic programs that faculty might want to attend. Spring semester programs typically overlap two quarters, meaning participants from quarter system schools have to either cut their participation short or arrange to be away from teaching for two thirds of the year instead of half.

So once it was clear that the semester system was predominating, other schools had incentives to hop on board even if the mildly preferred quarters on their own merits.

  • There's a running joke in Washington that the less-academic public school is on semesters (and therefore finishes earlier) so their students have a better shot at internships compared to the higher-ranked school which is on quarters. Jul 6, 2021 at 17:41

There are arguments in favor of both semesters and quarters, but these seem to be inconclusive. (In the U.S.:) In fact, in the 1960s and early 1970s, many places were on semesters... but there was a fad of switching to quarters, so many switched. Then, in the 1990s, there was a fad to switch (yes, "back") to semesters.

So it does not seem to be that it was eventually discovered that semesters are better. Nor that quarters are better. Plausibly semesters are easier to administer, since there're fewer registration events per year. On the other hand, students seem to like the shorter "marches"...

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