Have classes always started in September?

Dear Benny:
It is customary for classes at Penn to begin after Labor Day, and for Commencement to take place in May. Has this always been the case? How has the academic calendar changed over the years?
—Daily Thinker

Dear Daily Thinker,
Penn’s academic calendar has, indeed, changed with the times, with classes beginning as late as October, and Commencement happening as late as mid-June. To get the details on when and why the University’s class terms varied, we consulted the “Catalogue of the University of Pennsylvania,” a nifty publication produced each year between 1870 and 1945. The Catalogue provided a comprehensive overview, including the dates and details of the academic calendar.

In 1870, the academic year was divided into three terms: September through late December; January through late March; and April through late June. The three-term system remained for at least a decade. But by 1890, the calendar changed to two academic semesters, with first-term classes beginning on Oct. 1, classes for the second term starting in February and Commencement taking place on June 11.

The tradition of starting the academic calendar in September appears to have firmly taken hold by 1900.

Penn’s calendar stays roughly the same—with classes running from September to late May, and Commencement occurring in June—through 1941, when World War II changed everything.

During the war, the University instituted the Wartime Accelerated Program, which returned the calendar to a trimester system, eliminating all vacations and conducting classes throughout the summer. The acceleration was meant to allow students 18 or younger to complete their college work before being called into the military at 21. Under the plan, classes began in July, November and March. Commencement was held in mid-June. After the war, in 1946, Penn returned to the traditional two-semester system.

Got a question for Benny? Send it via e-mail to current@pobox.upenn.edu or via regular mail to the Current, 200 Sansom Place East, 3600 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6106.

Originally published on October 15, 2009