A Winter Break They Can (Finally) Enjoy

Harvard will synchronize the schedules of its disparate schools, moving up the start of fall semester and ending the grand tradition of finals in January.
January 17, 2008

When Harvard makes an announcement, it's usually news -- even when the university is catching up with the rest of higher education, rather than setting the pace. Hence this story.

For years, students at Harvard have found themselves spending part of their winter breaks preparing for final exams in January, a schedule that through the 1970s was the norm at many colleges and universities. But in the '80s and '90s, most had abandoned the "traditional semester calendar" for the now-familiar "early semester" beginning in late August or early September and concluding with finals in December. A 1993 study by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that 1 percent of colleges that academic year still adhered to the traditional schedule, which features a later start time and January finals, compared with 36 percent in 1970-71.

Now that Harvard will join most of its peers in adopting an earlier semester and December finals, according to an announcement on Tuesday, there's only one prominent holdout left: Princeton, where efforts to alter the academic calendar failed (for now) in 2007.

The change in Cambridge came about after several years of reports, committees and consultations, and is part of a broader effort to synchronize the schedules at the university's many schools. Starting in fall 2009, breaks will also be shared between most of Harvard's academic units and students will have more time off in January -- allowing an opening for a new, three-week "optional session" to accommodate "enhanced educational opportunities such as study abroad, lab experiences, internships, and mini-courses."

It was difficult to reach Harvard students for comment; they are, after all, in the middle of finals. The Harvard Crimson, however, had been known to support the status quo, writing in a 2006 editorial:

"Both professors and students appreciate the late start date of school because it allows for more travel and reflection during late summer. Ultimately, we like the extra-long study period that holiday break and Reading Period allow for. Sacrificing weeks of summer, a long Reading Period, and an intersession travel period for a run-of-the-mill College schedule is simply not worth it."

That endorsement provoked at least one strongly worded reply on the blogosphere: "Now I'm sure plenty of kiddies like it the way things are, but I also know that a good portion of the student body thinks it qualitatively sucks."

Those arguments, concisely put, boil down to complaints that friends at other ("run-of-the-mill") colleges have different break schedules, and that having finals looming over a break hardly leave time for a proper break at all.

"I believe 100 percent that the change is for the better," said Rachel Johnson, a Harvard junior who is an executive editor of Newsweek's student-run Current magazine, via e-mail. (She managed not to have any finals at all this semester.)

"Among the many groups lobbying for the new calendar was University Health Services, and they made a very compelling and important case -- echoed by my own experiences and my peers' -- that the current schedule is fundamentally taxing on student mental health," Johnson added. "Having three shorter, consecutive breaks means that students essentially can't relax or let their 'academic guard' down from September until the very end of January, when (if you have exams up until the very last or close to last days, as many students do) we have literally one week of complete freedom before the spring semester begins. On top of this, of course, most students tightly pack their summer schedules too; I spent less than a week at home the past two summers because of my job timing."

Princeton, for the time being, at least, will have to struggle forward bearing the sole mantle of the traditional schedule. There, too, students seem to be split on the relative merits of taking finals in January.

"Intuitively, one might believe students would overwhelmingly favor exams in December," said Rob Biederman, the student government president, in an e-mail. "Our surveys, however, did not find this to be the case."


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