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If Approved, New Credit System Could Diversify Course Offerings, Standardize Accreditation

By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

A proposal before the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to convert the College’s current course unit system to a more nationally recognized credit system could lead to an increase in the number and variety of nontraditional course offerings and a University-wide standardization of Harvard’s accreditation system.

Currently, the College requires students to take some combination of half- and full-year courses that equal a total of 32 semester-long half-courses. In a proposal brought forth by the Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M.  Harris, a new credit system would dictate that a half-course would be the equivalent of four credits, and a student would be expected to complete 128 total credits by graduation.

Though the system of accreditation will change, students will not be expected to take more than four classes per semester in order to graduate in four years.

“From a practical point of view, students at Harvard College would be substantially unaffected, since they will be required to take the same number of courses as today,” Harris wrote in his proposal.

According to FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke, talk of converting to the credit system has been going on for the past few decades, though the Faculty Council has only recently approved the proposal, which Harris presented to the Faculty in early April.

If the Faculty votes in favor of the credit system at their next meeting in May, the FAS will implement the new system during the 2015–2016 academic year, in tandem with the rollout of the College’s new Student Information System in the fall of 2015.

Peer institutions like Yale, Columbia, and Cornell each use a credit system already, as do Harvard graduate schools, aside from the Kennedy School and the Divinity School, which currently use the same course unit system as the College. According to Burke, converting to a more nationally recognized system would help students who are applying to graduate schools and jobs, as well those who are reporting to student loan companies.

“We have long stated on the back of our transcript that a half-course is approximately equivalent to four credits,” Burke said. “The purpose of this is that it helps other schools understand what a half-course or a full-course means.”

According to Harris, when the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid reports information to the U.S. Department of Education, it currently converts the College’s course units into credits.

“Our course unit system complicates our ability to meet the reporting requirements, since the government bases its benchmarks and standards on a credit system,” Harris said.

Burke said that the College’s use of course units dates back to at least the 19th century, when most offerings were full-year courses.

“Our current terminology is anachronistic; it’s archaic,” former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 said. “It stems from a time long ago when most Harvard courses went through two semesters, and that’s why they were called full-courses. Today there are hardly any full-courses.”

Harris also noted in his proposal the possibility of “offering courses that span non-traditional segments of time,” which could include labs, quarter courses, and J-term courses.

While the College already offers a few “less-than half” courses, Harris said the way the course catalogue is currently configured makes it difficult for the College to track these alternative courses.

Many FAS professors said that they viewed the proposal favorably, arguing that students may have a wider and more flexible variety of courses to explore.

“I think from the point of view from our concentration in engineering, this will provide a lot of very useful flexibility,” said Robert D. Howe, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Biomedical Engineering. “We are forced to try to lump together labs with classes, and sometimes that works well, but with other fields it doesn’t always work.”

Howe noted that if labs could count as a separate class rather than being attached to regular lectures or sections, students may be able to choose labs that are more tailored toward their interests.

“The benefit is that we can sort things out into nicer, more logical pieces,” Howe said.

However, Howe warned against increasing the amount of work students would be expected to complete under this new system.

“Every time you have a new class, there’s another layer of overhead,” he said. “It’s one more place you have to go at regular time every week, so we have to be careful that in splitting things up into nice digestible pieces, we don't increase the workload for both faculty and students.”

Lewis, who is a professor of computer science, added, “Certainly, we here in computer science and engineering can think of ways to be creative with these courses.”

Though both Burke and Harris emphasized that there would be no curricular or pedagogical change for undergraduates, they noted that administrative processes would be made easier, especially with the launch of the Student Information System, which will allow students from across all 12 Harvard schools to complete tasks ranging from study card submissions to billing payments all on one online platform.

Harris said that the Student Information System will come “ready made” for the course credit system.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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