Advice to ’25s: Shortcomings of the D-Plan

After a calamitous 2020, Dartmouth students reflect on the weaknesses exposed in the D-Plan and what future classes should be aware of.

by Meghan Powers | 9/7/21 3:05am

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by Alexandra Ma / The Dartmouth Staff

This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

The D-Plan — Dartmouth’s take on the quarter system format — gives students the flexibility within their schedules to take an off-term throughout the academic year; it also requires all students to be on campus the summer after their sophomore year for “sophomore summer.” It’s an unconventional system that ostensibly allows for creativity and fluidity. In practice, however, the D-Plan can be something of a mixed bag.

When Dartmouth switched to the quarter system in the 1970s, students were probably keeping in touch with friends on FSPs and off terms by carrier pigeon, or whatever they had back then for texting. While it has never been technologically easy to surmount the boundaries posed by distance, it’s still tough to think that the nature of the D-Plan often prevents the formation of a consistent cohort of students like semester schools have.

In 2012, Dartbeat — The Dartmouth’s recently defunct daily blog — published a piece by Felicia Schwartz called “Making friends with the D-Plan,” which offered up plenty of now-outdated advice about how to maintain friendships with friends who have “taken advantage of the D-Plan” and found themselves scattered across the globe. Among Schwartz’s suggestions? “Learn how to stalk” via the internet and keep in touch over Skype. Other sentences — like, “Facebook has Skype now” — may very much belong in 2012, but staying in contact with friends is a struggle intrinsic to the D-Plan.

It’s not just friendships that are changed by the D-Plan: Frances Pool-Crane ’23 has observed the influence the D-Plan has on relationship culture at Dartmouth.

“I feel like I know a much higher percentage of people at Dartmouth who have been in long-distance relationships because of the D-Plan compared to other schools,” Pool-Crane said.

During the pandemic, the D-Plan’s weaknesses were thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic has also amplified the difficulties of scheduling life in the high velocity, 10-week quarters that make up the D-Plan. 

Eric Och ’22, an international student from London who has gone back and forth between the U.S. and the United Kingdom since COVID-19 forced lockdowns in March 2020, said that when Dartmouth made the following spring term fully remote, he was on the way to Argentina for a Spanish FSP. Since then, he hasn’t really had a place to land. 

“Due to some slightly weird pre-COVID circumstances and then regular international student stuff during COVID, I have not lived in the same bedroom consistently for more than three months since freshman spring,” Och said. “I’ve just had a really disjointed life...it’s not entirely on Dartmouth, but a good chunk of the inconsistency of my last two years is on Dartmouth. That’s been very hard — I’m tired of moving.”

While frequent moving is exacerbated by being an international student, Och’s experience is not atypical for Dartmouth students, he said. 

“The thing I have noticed [about the D-Plan] in my extended period of transience,” Och continued, “is that everything is a beginning or an ending. There’s no actual content — you’re just starting and ending things constantly. I moved into [my current] room on July 15, but I’d say I finished moving in [around mid-August]. I move out on the 25th [of August]. That’s how it works every time, where I get a week or two when I’m actually living.”

It’s difficult to deal with the breakneck speed of Dartmouth’s 10-week terms and be forced to move all of the time. Still, the quarter system isn’t inherently a bad idea. Some students, like Grace Schwab ’24, appreciate the efficiency of each term.

“I definitely do like how in-depth courses at Dartmouth go,” she said. “They’re really fast and intense, but I feel like taking only three classes makes it so that we can hone the learning a bit more and feel less scattered...it lets me do more of a sprint and less of a marathon, in terms of really being able to delve into the material.”

This is a clear advantage of Dartmouth’s quarter system as many students see it, myself included. It’s a much better feeling to feel like your curiosity has been piqued and you want more of a class, than to be weeks deep in a class you’ve discovered that you have no affinity for, with no end in sight.

Pool-Crane feels similarly, although as an English major, she understands how students with different academic interests are diversely affected by the workings of the quarter system.

“I do like [10-week terms],” Pool-Crane said. “I think that’s not a super popular opinion and I think it’s mainly because I’m a humanities major. In STEM classes, there’s a set curriculum for courses like Math 8 and they have to fit it all into 10 weeks, unlike at schools doing semesters. With my English and German classes, they’re all structured around the fact that they’re going to be 10 weeks long, so the pacing…I don’t think it’s slower, but it’s much more reasonable.”

The D-Plan is contentious by nature, if only because Dartmouth does things differently than most other universities. Sophomore summer is one of the D-Plan’s hallmarks because it’s a totally unique opportunity for sophomores to get to know their classmates, but that doesn’t mean that my grandpa understands why I’m at summer school. 

Simply put, even the great things about the D-Plan are weird — and that’s in the best of times. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses of the D-Plan that myself and others weren’t even aware of, but now it’s clear that these shortcomings will pose an issue for future classes, like freshmen and sophomores.

A COVID-19-era decision of the Dartmouth administration requires that all students, beginning with the Class of 2024, take an off-term during the fall or spring term of their sophomore or junior years. Some students have seen this decision — which an op-ed from April by Gracie Dickman ’24 called a “hasty and shortsighted solution to the College’s housing problem” — as a way to discourage incoming classes from taking off-terms during the winter, which has always been a popular choice. For Schwab and her class, this new rule is a disappointment, especially because winters in Hanover are notoriously difficult.

As Och sees it, policies that limit the seeming “flexibility” of the D-Plan, as advertised by the Dartmouth admissions site, can usually be understood through a financial lens.

“If Dartmouth wanted to prioritize [the] student experience, we would be able to tell — that’s been my experience,” said Och. “You could take [former Dean of the College] Kathryn Lively’s emails at face value, and think that the reason everything is happening is because [the College is] bending over backwards to accommodate us, but the facts don’t align with that. The reality is that every decision is best understood by doing what is most financially reasonable [for the College].”

College students at any university can expect to roll with the punches of difficult classes and confusing schedules. However, with certain COVID-19 policies — and the unorthodox decisions being made to alleviate a housing crisis — sometimes, it feels impossible to understand the College’s reasoning at all. 

Despite its perceived shortcomings, the flexibility that is built into creating a D-Plan does allow for adaptability to COVID-19 level schedule changes. Pool-Crane feels that freshmen could benefit from being aware of how easy it is to change their D-Plan.

“[The College] purposefully makes it ambiguous that you can always change [your D-Plan]; when you declare it as a freshman, that means nothing. I changed a D-Plan slot three days before the term started last year.”

This unwarranted mystery surrounding the D-Plan is also perhaps indicative of an even bigger flaw: Students tend to try to plan ahead, but all the moving parts can lead to a domino effect.

“When I came to Dartmouth, I thought [the D-Plan] was great,” said Och. “But the jumble with COVID and realizing that, as soon as one thing goes wrong, your entire academic structure is screwed up, that kind of changed my mind.”

The D-Plan obviously has its pros and cons, but no indictment of Dartmouth’s quarter system will make it go away. So what’s the best plan of attack for incoming freshmen? All in all, it’s best to try not to take the D-Plan too seriously. Be deliberate about your schedule, but be prepared for a curveball or two. To paraphrase an old Yiddish proverb: “We plan, Phil Hanlon laughs.”

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