Does our academic schedule compare poorly to other schools?

Peter Dissinger | Contributing Writer

Today, we are back in school after our three-day fall break has quickly come and gone. With that in mind, perhaps today is the ideal day to reexamine Washington University’s fall academic calendar, an anomaly in the field of most private universities with only two one-day breaks (Labor Day and fall break), a traditional Thanksgiving break and then a three-day reading week and five days of exams.

In the research I have done, I have yet to find a university of the same caliber or size with a directly comparable schedule. As one of the first of my friends to leave for college, I was quick to gripe about what seemed like a lot of “extra” school. I had friends arriving on campus after Labor Day, when I had already had orientation and a week of school. When fall break was approaching and I heard that many of my East Coast friends would be off for multiple days, my concerns rose again.

After looking at the academic calendars of comparable universities, I found that my long-term concerns were completely invalid. Over a given school year, we have an almost identical amount of days as other prestigious private universities. Most private schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University and Tufts University, finish later than we do, which negates the extra week we have at the beginning of our year. Further, our reading period is a day or two longer, and we leave school two days earlier. While these differences may seem minimal, the myth that Wash. U. has more days of school is false.

The University of Chicago and Northwestern University operate on a slightly different schedule with a quarter system. They have much more limited break time and almost no study periods before exams. These schools have a relatively similar amount of academic days but in a much different structure. In my conversations with other freshmen, it’s clear that most Wash. U. students prefer our semester schedule. It is more conventional and has a significant impact on the structure of our academic schedules.

Where the consistency in scheduling really breaks down among colleges in America is liberal arts schools. Colleges like Haverford and Vassar have much larger breaks and end up having about one fewer week of school in the calendar. Both colleges have weeklong breaks in October and longer breaks in the fall, winter and spring.

While these schools finish much later, there is something to be said for the spacing out of their school years. While both systems have their merits, the intensity of college should (and mostly does) allow for conveniently spaced breaks.

You may have heard the old adage, “When you pay more, you go to school less.” While this is certainly true, we sometimes miss the point. Like at other universities, Wash. U. students are under an immense amount of pressure—the workload here is very heavy, especially given our expected schedule each semester. But additionally, in comparison with some other schools, like Vassar, we spend more time in class and take more courses.

In reality, having a school year as long as grade school would probably burn out students more than the current system. Having an extra day off could help students recover from a tough week, catch up on homework or even travel home. Wash. U. will probably never adopt a schedule like the system in place at liberal arts colleges and doesn’t seem to be gearing up to change to a quarter system.

But there is clearly room to slightly modify an already-intense schedule. After winter break, students only have six days off in a four-month period. In the fall, we have five days off. Given the workload of the average student, perhaps Wash. U. should consider expanding the proportion of break days to school days. Though universities are slow to make changes as major as these, they are an issue worth further discussion.

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