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In centuries past, Harvard’s system of half- and full-courses made sense. At one time, full-year courses were the norm, and the system accommodated half-courses without difficulty. Today, however, Harvard’s credit system is confusing and restricts innovative course structures. It is time for a change.
Fortunately, a proposal to modify Harvard College’s current system of academic accreditation looks to be moving towards approval. The proposal changes our current system of half- and full-year courses to a more nationally standard credit system, in which each half-course would correspond to 4.0 credits. We welcome the possibility of this long-overdue standardization of our credit system, as it promises to simplify administrative processes and provide students with more flexibility in their schedules.
The change to a credit system will allow students and administrators to more easily communicate their academic experience to those who are not familiar with Harvard’s academic policies. As pointed out by FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke, student loan companies, employers, and graduate programs must rely on the statement “on the back of our transcript[s] that a half-course is approximately equivalent to 4.0 credits.” Switching to the credit system will allow students to report a nationally standard number that represents their collegiate course load.
Similarly, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said that the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid already converts Harvard College courses into credits when they report to the Department of Education. Officially converting courses to credits will obviate a trivial conversion conducted by Harvard administrators, with no drawback in its daily operations.
Administrators would appreciate the change, and students would certainly not decry it: Dean Harris says that “students at Harvard College would be substantially unaffected” because a 128-credit graduation requirement still corresponds to four 4.0 credit courses per semester. We believe, however, that the change to a credit system would not just be neutral; it would be strongly positive. This new system will, in the future, open a new realm of opportunity for Harvard’s curricula and students. As Harris says in his proposal, the credit system has the potential for “courses that span non-traditional segments of time.”
Indeed, students would have the opportunity to round out their education by taking shorter, less time-consuming classes to supplement their schedules. An engineering student burdened with 16.0 credits of math and science courses could opt to enroll in a six-week survey course on ethical literature, worth 2.0 credits. Perhaps Wintersession could continue to grow by offering a week-long cooking course, worth 0.5 credits. With this system, students can explore interesting material unrelated to their concentration, even if enrolling in the full-time course has been rendered impossible by concentration requirements.
Though our campus is notorious for its unique nomenclature—Proctors, Teaching Fellows, and Concentrators—changing courses to credits is a switch that is more than semantics, and could make a very real difference in students’ lives. While having evaluation committees or Harvard offices convert courses to credits is certainly not a great burden, reporting coursework as credits is simpler and more flexible. The change being contemplated is, for now, purely a mathematical conversion, but it opens up new possibilities. We encourage the faculty to adopt the credit system without delay.
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