Most working adults don’t get much official time off during the holidays—the Explainer, for instance, is only released into the wild on Christmas and New Year’s Day. But students get tons of vacation time—some college breaks last as long as six weeks. How’d these kids get so lucky?
They can thank the stagflation and energy crisis of the Carter era, mostly. American colleges originally based their academic calendars around the agricultural cycle, commencing the semester after the harvest—much later than the August start that’s typical today. They also once hewed to a standard two-week break around Christmas, with exams scheduled for after the holiday. But in the 1970s, when many academic institutions found themselves in dire fiscal straits (one national task force predicted that more than one-quarter might be forced to close their doors), administrators realized that if they altered the calendar, they could reduce spending. By starting the term during late summer and by shutting their doors for a month or more over the winter holidays, they saved significantly on heating costs at a time when oil prices where cripplingly high. Serendipitously, this cost-cutting measure coincided with a broader movement inside academia toward experimental pedagogy, like study abroad, mini-classes, and internship programs that could be completed over a slightly longer break.
The shift toward a longer winter break actually represents a move back to an earlier tradition. Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge Universities, upon which many of the oldest American colleges modeled themselves, settled into standardized terms in the mid-13th century. Students enjoyed a winter break of nearly a month between the Michelmas and Hilary terms at Oxford, and between Michelmas and Lent at Cambridge. As the term names suggest, the demands of the Christian religious calendar helped dictate the timing and length of the break. The difficulty of travel in the pre-internal-combustion era and the cost of heat and light during coldest days of the year may also have played a part.
Public elementary and secondary schools usually have a holiday break of just a week, as they must comply with state-mandated hour requirements for in-school instruction. Private schools historically have slightly longer breaks. Students at the boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy, for instance, had a two-week break at the holidays in 1850 and will get 18 days off this year.
With many academic institutions once again under financial duress, and with ever-growing attention paid to sustainability, colleges are seeking to make the most of their resources over the winter break. Some have begun renting out facilities for conferences over the holidays or furloughing some of their maintenance and support staff. Of course, schools can’t bring their maintenance and energy costs down to zero, even if fewer people are around. In Northern climes, there’s the risk of pipes freezing, and in the South, buildings are susceptible to mold growth without proper circulation.
Not all the students lucky enough to have a long winter break are satisfied with the schedule they inherited from the 1970s. Students at Brown University, for instance, asked administrators this year to give them less time off at Christmas—so they can have a longer spring break.
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Explainer thanks Paul Fain of the Chronicle of Higher Education and John Thelin of the University of Kentucky.