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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

A History of the Curriculum 1865-1970s

Prospectus of the Vassar Female College, Poughkeepsie, NY

The Vassar of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—lacking core requirements and offering a multitude of inter- and multidisciplinary disciplines—is famous for the opportunities for intellectual exploration that it affords its students. However, the curriculum which makes Vassar rare among colleges today was not always the kind of curriculum Vassar had in place. From the first steps of the founders, setting off on the path of women’s education where few had gone before, to the major reforms of the twentieth century, the evolution of the Vassar curriculum has been an intricate process.

The Early Years: 1865–1886

In relation to matters literary and professional, I can claim no knowledge, and I decline all responsibility. I shall leave such questions to your superior wisdom.

Prospectus of the Vassar Female College, Poughkeepsie, NY

And so Matthew Vassar left the planning of the first course of study to the Board of Trustees. After meetings and discussions on what the proper course of education for a young lady should be, in the spring of 1865 the trustees published a “Prospectus.” In it they outlined the requirements for admission (candidates should be over fifteen years of age, and be able to pass examinations in arithmetic, English grammar, modern geography, and American history), and a tentative course of study from freshman through senior years. Candidates for the B.A. could pursue one of two courses: the Classical, or the Scientific. All students took Latin, Mathematics, English Language and Literature, Geography, Chemistry, Logic, Physiology, and Philosophy, but the Classical students focused on Greek and added Modern Languages later than the Scientific course, which substituted French for Greek and added German to replace Latin in the sophomore year. The Scientific course also included the study of botany, zoology, and more geology and astronomy than the Classical course.

When students arrived at the college, the trustees quickly found that they had more problems than they had anticipated. The students were, for the most part, poorly prepared for collegiate-level study, and exceptions to the Classical and Scientific course plans became the rule. The first professor of English Language and Literature, Henry Buckham, was so exasperated with his students’ incompetence that he left the college after only one year. The college hastily organized a preparatory school to bring students up to the level that collegiate study at Vassar required. At the end of the second year, students were organized into classes, with four students in the first graduating class, 1867. There were eighteen juniors, thirty-six sophomores, fifty-eight freshman, seventy-one preparatory students, and 165 special preparatory students (older students and students not pursuing the full preparatory course).

By the 1870s, a modified plan had been put into practice. Finding that more students were pursuing courses that were exceptions to the Scientific and Classical courses, the college relaxed its requirements. Courses through the first semester of the sophomore year were still prescribed, but starting in the fourth semester students had more freedom to choose their courses.

Not only requirements but even the curricular building blocks underwent redefinition. The original departments of the College were English Language and Literature, Ancient and Modern Languages and Literature, Mathematics/Natural Philosophy/Chemistry, Astronomy, Natural History, Physiology and Hygiene, History and Political Economy, and Philosophy. Art and Music were listed as “extra-collegiate” departments. By 1876, German and French had split off from the Ancient and Modern Languages department to form their own departments. In 1877, the departments of Art and Music became the Schools of Art and Music. Students enrolled in these schools received a different degree than the regular B.A. candidates, and the courses were listed separately in the catalogue.

By the mid 1880s the college was in trouble. Fewer students were choosing to come to Vassar, as the opening of other colleges like Wellesley and Smith gave them more options for higher education. President Samuel Caldwell’s laissez-faire approach to curricular matters was reflected elsewhere. He failed to build alliances with the growing number of secondary schools, and he declared himself uninterested in fundraising. Thus, the college had to take on more preparatory students to compensate for the loss of funds. The number of preparatory students ballooned to account for almost half of the school’s enrollment, and Vassar was in danger of becoming a place where young ladies went to prepare for, instead of attend, college. A group of alumnae, concerned about Vassar’s growing crisis and supported by the trustees, organized against Caldwell, and he resigned in 1885. The preparatory school was dismantled slowly, and in the fall of 1888 the college opened with no preparatory students for the first time in its history.

An Era of Increasing Freedom: 1890s to World War II

The next big revision in the college’s curriculum came in 1891. In his address to the Board of Trustees in October 1891, President Taylor called for the abolition of the Schools of Art and Music, saying that “the great problem is to furnish the opportunity without encroachment upon the more important work of a college course.” In December the Board of Trustees voted to dismantle the schools and incorporate them into the regular curriculum as the departments of art and music. Henceforth, students could get credit for courses in the history and theory of art and music, but not for practice or instruction. At this time, the art department started shifting away from studio art, focusing instead on art history, and it would be about a century before the earlier balance between the two elements would be restored.

1895-1896 saw increased opportunity for students to vary from the prescribed course. As earlier, students followed a compulsory curriculum through the first semester of their sophomore year, but after that the requirements were greatly reduced—history, physics or chemistry in the second semester of the sophomore year, psychology in the junior year, and ethics in the senior year. Many new courses had been added to the curriculum and would continue to be added in the next ten years, including Russian, Spanish, bible studies, economics, sociology, education, psychology, and political science.

In 1903–04, required courses were decreased even further. Students were required to accumulate 115 credit hours (three hours = one course) over four years to graduate. This included, in the freshman year, one English, one mathematics, and one year of an ancient language. One year of a modern language, one history and one physics or chemistry could be completed in either the freshman or sophomore year. The requirements for junior and senior years did not change.

James Monroe Taylor (left) with Henry Noble MacCracken

In 1915 Henry Noble MacCracken became the president of Vassar College. Under his auspices, a sweeping reform of the curriculum took place. The change first became evident in 1919, when the requirements for graduation again changed to allow for greater flexibility in the first two years and specialization in the last. Beginning with the class of 1921, students were required to complete a course of “sequential study,” called the “Related Studies Program,” with 36 credit hours distributed between two departments, with no less than 12 in either department. This was the precursor to the major field of study requirement. In the early years of MacCracken‘s presidency, he also reorganized the curriculum committee, and in 1921 formed a student curriculum committee.

In the 1922–23 catalogue the curriculum was revised once again to become even more flexible. English and history were the only compulsory classes, as a student could opt out of Latin or math with a second science class. More independent work was allowed in the senior year. The departments in the college were organized into five divisions for the purposes of distribution requirements—classical literature, modern foreign literature, mathematics, chemistry and physics, and the other sciences. Students had to take one class from all five of these groups, but could opt out of one of the sciences by taking a third foreign language. This allowed the student to have greater control over her requirements and tailor her coursework to her own needs and interests.

Clearly, Vassar was creeping towards a new kind of curriculum in which the course of study was determined by the student, not the college. At the urging of Dean C. Mildred Thompson ’03, the curriculum underwent a massive study, leading to the “Curriculum of 1927.” The distribution requirements of 1922 were revised into areas of study: Arts, Languages, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences (similar to the divisions of today), and for the first time in Vassar’s history, no single course was required. Another change was the emphasis on a major field of study in the Related Studies Program. 45 credit hours in a single department, with no less than 12 in the third or fourth-year seminars, were required. The new curriculum was hailed as “freedom with choice,” and MacCracken called it a compromise between American and European views of college work.

This new curriculum was still a work in progress, however. In 1934 the Curriculum Committee voted to simplify the confusion that arose from the complexity of 1927’s rules. The credit value of a class was changed from three semester hours to two points, and the requirement for graduation was revised so that 64 points were required for a degree. This meant that students took four courses per semester instead of five, allowing them to concentrate on greater depth rather than breadth. A “comprehensive exam” was required of all seniors, in order to emphasize further the concentration in the selected field.

The students, however, were not so fond of this new plan. They complained that they were not adequately prepared for the comprehensive exams, and rather than focus on depth, they resented the restrictions that the four-course plan laid upon them in terms of breadth of study. In 1940 the Curriculum Committee recommended that sophomores and juniors revert to the five-course plan, and that the written comprehensive examination be only one part of the senior year requirement, the other part including a paper, production, or laboratory work.

World War II and the Three-Year Plan v. Four-Year Plan

Both internal and external pressures in the late 1930s and early 1940s forced Vassar to rethink the curriculum in different ways. As the United States entered the war in Europe, more students felt compelled to accelerate their studies. MacCracken proposed a three-year plan of study for the B.A. in 1942, but his plan was rejected, the faculty and trustees instead preferring to encourage students to pursue summer study in order to graduate early. In March of 1943, however, as the college became more engaged in the war effort, the three-year plan was approved as an “emergency measure.” The new plan included the two normal fifteen-week terms, as well as an extra ten-week term in the summer. Students could choose to pursue the four-year course by opting out of summer study, while students who wished to graduate in three years attended the summer term. The emergency plan was due to undergo review in 1948 to see if it was suitable for adoption as permanent.

At the same time as the introduction of the three-year plan, the curriculum committee tried again to resolve the course-point debate by reorganizing the point distribution system, leaving it up to the student whether she wanted to take 4 or 5 courses each year. Students needed to complete 120 points for graduation; regular-term courses yielded three points each while summer courses counted for two points. Many “experimental” courses were taught in the summer term, and as a result the curriculum was expanded by the introduction of interdisciplinary courses such as American Civilization, Hispanic America, and Post-War Reconstruction.

Students responded very well to the three-year plan. In 1943, only 79 students surveyed were opposed to the plan, while 964 supported it. In the fall of that year, nearly all of the freshman class decided to pursue the three-year course. However, the faculty was deeply divided between four-year and three-year supporters, and after the war ended in 1945 tensions became worse. Some faculty members would cross the street to avoid meeting with a colleague who stood on the opposite side of the debate.

The scheduled review took place two years early, in 1946, at the urging of the four-year supporters. The three-year group, composed mostly of social science professors, was in favor of “general education,” implying a high number of distribution requirements and more interdepartmental work. The four-year group, which drew mostly from the arts and sciences faculty, urged more concentrated study and advocated encouraging students to use the summers for travel, employment, field work, and individual study. Also motivated, no doubt, by their need to use the summer for their own research, the time period for which was severely shortened by the summer term, they noted faculty were not compensated adequately for the time they spent teaching in the summer. The summer term represented an almost 30% increase in their teaching time, but their pay increased by no more than 10%.

As a result of the review, the four-year curriculum was affirmed and the three-year plan abandoned. The summer term continued for two more years, however, in order to let students from the classes of 1947 and 1948 finish in three years if they wished. The tension between faculty on opposing sides of the argument remained and would continue to affect faculty politics for many years to come.

The Aftermath to the Simpson Presidency

In 1946, just after World War II ended, Sarah Gibson Blanding became Vassar’s sixth president—and its first woman president. With the faculty still divided by the four vs. five course and three vs. fours years debates, several different plans were considered, resulting in a new requirement of two years of science for the class of 1951. This sparked an outcry. The faculty struck down a proposed “Plan for Freshman Year,” focused largely on distribution requirements, as “inflexible” and “an infringement on departmental autonomy.” Instead, they voted that a new study of distribution requirements take place in 1949 under the new Dean, Marion Tait, and President Blanding. That study, however, was put on hold until the Mellon Study completed its first year.

The Mellon Study, financed by a grant given by Paul Mellon in memory of his wife Mary Conover Mellon ’26, was an “exploration and encouragement of those conditions of the life of the college that contribute most to mental and emotional health.” The Mellon findings advocated smaller classes and more faculty-student interaction. Unfortunately, at the time the economy was undergoing postwar inflation, and the college found itself cutting costs by means of offering larger, lecture-based classes. With the competing economical and educational interests, the college formed a Trustee-Alumnae-Faculty Committee on the Future of the College in 1951 to determine the direction it would take. The Cresap, McCormick, and Paget study in the spring of 1951, which analyzed the educational v. non-educational cost of operations, recommended a higher student:faculty ratio and admitting students of higher quality.

In addition to economic concerns and the ongoing debates over four vs. five courses and distribution requirements, the college was becoming concerned about its image in the world at large. Vassar was increasingly known as a “rich girls’ school” and “country club.” As more public universities opened and more private schools became coed, fewer students were attracted to Vassar. In the aftermath of WWII, with more men available, the average marriage age lowered, and more women were choosing to get married rather than attend college, or dropped out when they became engaged. Students also looked at college more as a “stepping stone” to a career or marriage rather than an academic pursuit of learning. The seven-day academic week had recently been abolished in favor of a five-day one, and as a result there was more time to socialize—and to leave campus on the weekends. Further complicating the problem of Vassar’s image was the difficulty of retaining qualified faculty, as the supply of professors went down along with the amount of money available to pay them. At this time, the Vassar was paying its professors far less than comparable institutions.

One response to these concerns was the creation in 1956 by the President and the Dean of the Coordinating Committee on Educational Policy (CCEP). This committee’s final report affirmed Vassar’s primary commitment to education, advising that extracurricular activities be trimmed and supporting the “joy of learning for the sake of learning.” It recommended stricter admissions requirements in order to attract more top students: more language, math, and science were required during secondary school study, as well as sustained sequential study in certain areas. In order to make both admissions and distribution requirements more flexible, they proposed that qualified students be exempt from certain distribution requirements if they had fulfilled them in their secondary school years. The CCEP also recommended that a “sequence of courses” be required for the major, similar to today’s major field distribution requirements, instead of letting students take whatever courses in the department they wished, as had been the case previously.

Acceptance by the faculty of the CCEP’s report, in 1959, brought distribution requirements into better alignment with entrance requirements, established a five-course plan in the first two years and a four-course plus independent work in the last two, and revived the written comprehensive exam, which had been dropped in 1943. An honors program was introduced temporarily, and the schedule was changed so that the first semester would end before Christmas, instead of having students take their exams after the break. The complex advising system for the choice of major was dropped, and admissions requirements were strengthened while becoming more flexible. And finally, reductions on subcommittees and restrictions on committee membership were imposed.

To address economic concerns, a trustee/faculty/administration committee was formed to consider the elimination and/or combining of courses, increasing class size, and scaling down the advising system. The committee also considered increasing the student/faculty ratio to 15:1 from 10:1 as a means to raise faculty salaries in order to attract and retain more qualified teachers. The faculty intervened, however, to remind the trustees that there were other inducements than salary: they wanted reasonable teaching loads, quality students and colleagues, the knowledge that the institution they worked for made a contribution to the field of education, and more control over the future of the curriculum. The trustees assured them that recommendations on the curriculum should originate with the faculty and that any final reports would be submitted to them.

The Path to Coeducation

By the early 1960s—and despite all the committee work—Vassar was facing the same problems it had a decade earlier. Whereas before most students came from private single-sex institutions, students were now coming from coed public high schools, and students who had been accepted and chose not to come most often cited the fact that Vassar was a single-sex institution as the reason for their choice. Coed and public universities were not only drawing top students away, but with superior facilities and higher salaries, were attracting the best faculty as well.

In 1964, Alan Simpson succeeded Sarah Gibson Blanding as president, and he quickly came to see that Vassar was in need of major changes. In the spring of 1966, students published a “Grouse Sheet” in the Miscellany News, attacking overly restrictive social and curricular regulations and calling for more individualization, more academic experiences outside classroom, and more independent study opportunities. The faculty responded, scaling down distribution requirements for the class of 1970 and beyond. Students now had to elect six points of art, music, drama or English, six points of a foreign language, six points of a social science, and six points of science or mathematics. The college also reduced major requirements, and introduced “reading courses” and adding “ungraded” work—evaluated simply as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” principally field work and independent study—to the grading system.


In late 1966, President Simpson and President of Yale, Kingman Brewster, began to discuss an affiliation between the two institutions. A critical question was whether what Yale had in mind was simply that Vassar should abandon her Poughkeepsie campus and relocate to New Haven. Vassar was unwilling to commit to such an approach so early in the discussion, especially with vocal opposition coming from the alumnae. Thus, at the same time, Vassar formed a Committee on New Dimensions which began considering establishing a coordinate college for men in Poughkeepsie, or an affiliated coed graduate school. The committee’s study of student feelings found that a majority favored more access to men in the classroom, but with mixed feelings about how to incorporate them.

The faculty was also mixed about the merger, but a visit to Yale in 1967 cooled their feelings considerably. In late May, a delegation of two faculty members from each department traveled to New Haven. While some Yale departments welcomed their Vassar peers, most Yale faculty indicated that they would prefer that Vassar professors teach introductory courses, while they focused on advanced undergraduate and graduate students. The Alumnae were overwhelmingly opposed to affiliation—indeed, many of them, especially from the 1930s and earlier, were opposed to any sort of mixed-sex education. In addition, Nell Eurich, the new Dean of Faculty and head of the Committee on New Dimension, wanted to use the merger as an opportunity for curricular experimentation and innovation, and it was clear that Yale was not interested in this.

As opposition to the merger grew more heated on the Vassar end, the Board of Trustees was informed by its lawyers that the process of rechartering in another state and transferring the endowment would be very difficult legally, particularly in the face of so much opposition. The possibility of a merger with Yale was now closing, but the trustees decided that a change must take place: they announced that in the future Vassar would educate men and appointed a joint committee with the faculty to decide how this would be done.

The Report on Education for Men, which came out in early 1968, noted the difficulties of establishing and running a coordinate college for men and the probable pressure from students for fuller gender-integration. The faculty, responding to the report, voted on May 30th 102-3 in favor of admitting men as transfer students in the fall of 1969 and to the freshman class in 1970.

So far, Vassar’s curriculum changes had been variations on a theme: the college had responded to the times by loosening restrictions in some areas, but as a whole the curriculum had remained fairly traditional. The Committee on New Dimensions, led by Dean of Faculty Nell Eurich, created an entirely new way of looking at the curriculum to go along with Vassar’s revolutionary act of admitting men. In the spirit of Matthew Vassar, a pioneer in the field of women’s education, Vassar College was continuing to forge new pathways in coeducation and curricular policies.

The Committee on New Dimensions stated that, “we must make sure our curriculum is supple enough both to encourage student individuality and to keep students in flux with their world.” The plan that they came up with was radically different from anything Vassar had tried before. The college now offered three options for concentration: the Independent program (a course of study designed by the student), Concentration in a Discipline (the traditional majors), and the Multidisciplinary program, which included such fields of study as East Asian Studies, Man and the Human Community, Language and Communications, and Arts and Society. The plan also called for an “enlarged academic community” with more emphasis on meaningful work outside of Vassar’s gates.

The curriculum was divided into three areas: Arts and Literature, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. In place of distribution requirements, students were required to take half of their work outside of their major discipline, and at least one-fourth outside of their major division. Advanced work became more specialized and individualized (many advanced courses were pushed back to the intermediate level to make room for these new courses), and more single semester courses were offered so that students could sample more disciplines. The committee solved the four vs. five course debate by shifting to thirty-four units as the ‘equivalent’ for the 120 semester hours required by New York State for graduation, with one semester-long class equaling one unit, instead of three or four points as previously. Anywhere from three and a half to five units per semester was considered ‘full-time’ enrollment. The committee also rethought freshman year, and the “freshman seminar,” the precursor to today’s freshman course requirement, was introduced in 1968, though it was experimental and not required at the time. The new plan was inaugurated in 1969, the same year that men started coming to the college.

Some of the Committee on New Dimension’s plans, such as the establishment of several graduate centers such as the “Institute for the Advancement of College and University Teaching” and “The Institute of Study of Man and the Human Community” never came to fruition. And, while several of the prospective multidisciplinary programs were not developed, many more, not imaginable at the time, have been added to the Vassar curriculum. It is a testament to the committee’s forward-thinking, however, that the Vassar curriculum survives into the twenty-first century relatively unchanged from when it was first envisioned nearly forty years ago. A student of 2006, looking at a catalogue from the early 70s, would find much of it to be familiar. Vassar is still one of a very small number of colleges that offers its students such curricular freedom, and that freedom is certainly the reason many students choose to attend Vassar.

Related Articles


Vassar College Course Catalogues 1865–2005

Evalyn A. Clark, A History of the Vassar Curriculum 1915–1965 (unpublished), VCSC

Daniels, Elizabeth A. and Clyde Griffen, Full Steam Ahead in Poughkeepsie: The Story of Coeducation at Vassar 1966–1974. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Press. 2000.

Raymond, John. Life and Letters.

Historical Sketch of Vassar College. New York, NY: S. W. Green, 1876.

JLD, 2005