At some point, you’ve had to use an academic calendar — either as a student, parent, or educator. But, did you know that academic calendars contain much more than start and end dates for classes?  Also included is information about when to register or apply for financial aid. We’ll explain the purpose of academic calendars, the types of systems commonly used in academic calendars, and why its agrarian roots are a myth. Getting ready for school? Here is the academic calendar in a review.

The purpose of the academic calendar.

Every academic calendar contains dates when students can register, cancel, withdrawal, and drop classes. But, your main reason for an academic calendar will be to schedule your time and use time management.

Academic calendars, as defined by PeopleSoft Campus Solutions, “are systems by which you define the landmark dates that drive much of the day-to-day business at the academic institution.”  Universities and schools calendar deadlines for when payments are due and when financial aid needs to be submitted. Other data-driven information includes the first and last day of class, class breaks like holidays, and graduation commencements.

An academic calendar is to keep students, faculty, and staff reminded of key dates throughout the academic semester and year. It can also be useful for prospective students, alumni, and parents as well.

Each educational institution creates its own academic calendar with their own defined dates. For example, the first day of classes could start on August 30 for one college, while another begins instruction on September 6. However, both institutions may also follow similar calendars, such as closing school on holidays like Thanksgiving.

Additionally, some deadlines may have to adhere to state or federal guidelines.

Case in point, financial aid take 2019, for instance. The FAFSA deadline set by the federal government is on June 30, 2019, for the 2018-2019 academic year. At the same time, states and colleges can set their own deadlines. In Connecticut, for example, the deadline to file for the 2018-2019 school year would have been on February 15, 2018.

Example of the academic calendar and its purpose.

An academic calendar varies from institution to institution. Contact your chosen institution for a complete schedule and calendar your way to academic-school success. Here’s what a fall academic course calendar can look like. Use the same idea for your other school schedules.

  • Mar 4: Registration for the Fall semester begins.
  • June 30: FAFSA deadline is due.
  • August 1: College-wide in-service – campus closed to the public.
  • Aug 8: Last day to enroll online in a payment plan for the upcoming semester.
  • Aug 11: Fall tuition deadline.
  • Aug 20: Move-in for the first year and transfer students.
  • Aug 20-25: New student orientation.
  • Aug 26: First day of classes.
  • September 1: Labor Day – no classes.
  • Sept 3: Last day to withdraw for 100% tuition refund, drop a course without a grade, or add a class.
  • Sept 15: Financial aid, disbursement.
  • Sept 19: Last day to file an application for Fall credential (certificate, degree, diploma) with Registrar’s Ofice.
  • October 1: Registration for Spring semester begins.
  • Oct 14 – 17: Fall break.
  • November 10: Spring financial aid priority deadline.
  • Nov 29 – December 2: Thanksgiving break.
  • December 10: Last day of classes.
  • Dec 11-12: Reading days.
  • Dec 13 – 16: Final examinations.
  • Dec 16: End of the fall semester.
  • Dec 18: Last day to enter final grades.
  • Dec 23: Blank Calendar day.

What’s great about this scheduling is that you can create an academic calendar with ease. You can use a calendar template and upload the key dates those affiliated with your school need to be aware of.

Breaking down the academic calendar.

Typically, the academic year has been divided into two 18-week semesters that, on average consists of 180 days of instruction. In K-12, each semester is further broken down into either two nine-week marking periods or three six-week marking periods. Traditionally, the first day of school begins on the Tuesday or Wednesday following Labor Day. The first semester then concludes in December, with the second starting in January and running until May or June.

Most community colleges follow a similar calendar like primary and secondary schools, while collegiate calendars often use one of the five following calendars.

Traditional semester.

In a semester system, the academic year is divided into two semesters — usually in the fall and spring. Typically, each semester lasts 14 to 20 weeks, depending on the institution. Each semester also concludes with about a week of final examinations proceeded by a break.

The traditional semester schedule was the dominant calendar used by U.S. colleges and universities from the 1950s to the early 1970s. However, even if it’s been slightly altered, the semester calendar remains a popular option. One study found that 70 percent of all institutions used this type of calendar. And it’s easy to see why.

The semester calendar, according to Concordia University, “allows for a better quality of instruction.”

As opposed to just learning “the facts, students have more time to learn theories and generalizations.” What’s more, it allows them to absorb new concepts. Additionally, this type of schedule can help students more easily transition from high school to college.

Semesters are also beneficial for transfer students, and recent graduates have the advantage to find employment since they’re out of school before systems like the quarter.

And, as if that weren’t enough, a semester schedule encourages better collaboration and instructional time since it limits the exams and registration periods to just twice a year.

This is very similar to the Mayan calendar.

Early semester, a variant of the traditional semester.

The early semester schedule is a variant of the traditional semester system. While it still divides the academic year into equivalent parts, it often begins and ends two weeks earlier. Since the 1970s, this has become the preferred schedule for colleges and universities. Two-Thirds of institutions rely on this type of system compared to only 4 percent that still uses the traditional semester system.

Regardless of enrollment size, this calendar is most popular among schools.

It’s been found that it’s used by:

  • Sixty-four percent of schools with small enrollments (enrollments under 5,000).
  • 68 percent of medium-sized schools (enrollments between 5,000 to 19,999).
  • Seventy-seven percent of schools with larger enrollments (enrollments of 20,000 or more students).

Quarter system.

Another popular way to break-up the academic calendar is through the quarter system. The quarter system is where the calendar year is divided into three different quarters rather than two semesters and a summer term. Each quarter runs around 10 to 12 weeks and totals 32 to 36 weeks of instruction.

In this system, the first quarter takes place from late-September to mid-December.

The winter quarter goes from early January to mid-March. And, the spring quarter runs from late March or early April to mid-June. There may also be an optional summer session. Twenty percent of universities use the quarter system, including well-known institutions like Northwestern Univerity, University of California, Stanford, the University of Washington, and Dartmouth College.

It’s been argued that this system allows for more flexibility among students.

When a semester is shorter, they can experiment with their electives or faculty. Some enjoy this instead of committing to a class or instructor for an extended period of time. It’s also beneficial for those with double majors or minors since this gives them a chance to improve their GPA. The quarter calendar has shorter winter or summer breaks, students and faculty can remain focused and motivated.

Trimester system.

Influenced by the semester system, schools that use a trimester format divide the academic year into three terms. Each term lasts about 15 to 16 weeks, similar to the quarter system. Because these systems are shorter, it allows students the opportunity to have more variation to class schedules or at the minimum, to graduate faster. Some students attending class year round are able to graduate in just three years.

At the University of Michigan and Brigham Young University, the calendar would appear something like:

  • The Fall trimester runs from September through December.
  • The Winter trimester operates from January through April.
  • The Spring-Summer trimester goes from May through August. They’re two half-trimesters with classes meeting for eight weeks in May and June, and then another eight weeks in July and August.

Park University, modify this even further by creating a quinmester academic calendar. A quinmester (yes, this is spelled correctly), is where the school operates within five terms per year with each lasting eight weeks.

“4-1-4” or “4-4-1” calendars.

Another variation of the academic calendar is the 4-1-4 or 4-4-1 plan. In this format, there are two terms that last roughly four months each, along with a short mini-session. The mini-sessions usually occur either between terms or following the end of the spring term.

For example, the first term operates from September to December, with the second from February to May.

The single one-month term in January takes place in January and is called a J-term. During this time, students can partake in independent study, study abroad, intern, or focus on one or two classes so that they can graduate faster. With the 4-4-1 plan, however, the short term occurs in May. As such, it’s is often called a “Maymester,” which is a combination of “May” and “semester.” You can read all about this here.

Since these short terms are longer than a month, students have a much smaller course load. As a result, it allows for greater focus or the flexibility to study overseas or do a month-long internship instead of attending class. Examples of schools using this semester include the Massachusetts Insititute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Hofstra University, Miami University, the University of Delaware, Colby College, and Pacific University.

Those using the 4-4-1 format are Ohio University, Purdue University, Clemson University, Emory University, and the College of New Jersey.

Agrarian roots and the academic calendar.

Regardless of the calendar system used, there is a major common thread. The academic year lasting between nine and ten months with each semester beginning in September is currently the norm. This schedule can be traced back at least more than 300 years ago to 18th Century England. During this era, which was an agrarian society, children would attend school from September to June so that they could spend the summer working on the family farm.

When the first schools began to open in the colonies — the Boston Latin School is considered to be the first school in America which opened in 1635. The first school in America followed a similar calendar. Schools followed this routine and remained with this schedule from 1870 — the first year when every state had tax-subsidized elementary schools, until today.

Today we are debunkingDebunking the myth of summer vacation.

It’s been commonly accepted that the academic calendar was mainly influenced by agrarian roots. More recently, however, we’re finding out that this wasn’t 100 percent accurate.

“What school on the agrarian calendar looked like was a short winter term and a short summer term,” said Kenneth Gold, a historian at the College of Staten Island. “And if you think about farming needs, that’s actually what makes sense.”

The reason is that children had to work on the family farm during the spring when crops had to be planted.

Children were also needed during the fall when these crops had to be harvested and sold. So, historically speaking, most children went to school in the summer. Summer is when all crops are growing, and animals are getting fat — it’s not the time to harvest. “The whole idea of an agrarian calendar makes it sound like it was an unthinking decision but the current school year was a conscious creation,” said Gold, who is the author of, School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.

Urban schools, however, had a different school schedule where classes were in session pretty much year round.

In 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days annually. At the same time, because there wasn’t air conditioning, cities were sweltering — to say the least. To escape the heat, the wealthy and middle-class would flee the city. Because of this, it just made sense to close educational institutions during this time.

The times they are a-changing.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century, however, that school reformers wanted to standardize the school calendar so that it was the same for both urban and rural areas. To consider both the country and the urban areas needs, the school schedule would mean that a compromise had to be made. Again, summer was a logical choice. During this time, teachers had a chance to train while children got a breather. It had little to do with farming.

Since then, primary schools around the country have experimented with different schedules, it’s not uncommon for schools to go year-round.

Meanwhile, in higher education, colleges were tinkering around with options outside of the traditional semester system. When the Univerity of Chicago opened over 120 years ago, the school implemented a quarter-system calendar. According to Goldie Blumenstyk in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the college did this because it “figured it would have a better chance of enticing academically minded students to pick up and transfer if it offered them four start times a year.”

However, thanks to advancements in technology, academic calendars have drastically changed. Take Rio Salado College as an example. To better accommodate its students, the college offers a staggering 48 semester times a year.