Alternative Colleges: Unique Schools for Unique Students
Published on December 12, 2019
Why Pursue a Nontraditional College Experience?
It's no secret that the needs and preferences of students vary greatly, but finding the right college for you might require going off the beaten path. Students choose their schools based on a variety of factors, including location, campus culture, affordability, and academic programs.
While these are important variables to consider, students can also consider institutions that offer innovative approaches to customizing majors, scheduling classes, or graduating debt-free.
Whether you want to pursue an interdisciplinary degree that combines multiple interests, earn a four-year degree while only taking one class at a time, or work throughout college in lieu of paying tuition, you might be interested in learning more about the schools covered below.
Designing Your Own Major: Evergreen State College
Located in Olympia, Washington, Evergreen State College offers students an unparalleled degree of freedom to design their own field of study. The approach provides the flexibility to design an interdisciplinary area of emphasis that pulls from as many subjects as a student desires.
Choosing an Area of Emphasis or Path of Study
An area of emphasis at Evergreen presents students with a different way to think about the focus of their studies. Rather than having students declare their major soon after starting school, Evergreen invites students to choose their area of emphasis near the end of their studies, which helps them better describe what they've learned.
Learners can choose a traditional subject like geography or political science, or create their own descriptor like media and culture or international cinema. The title of your area of emphasis will not appear on your transcript, although you can use it in academic statements.
One benefit of this system is that if a student changes the focus of their studies, all the credits they've earned up to that point still count toward their degree. Students won't need to start over and complete new prerequisites, which helps them stay on track to graduate in four years.
For Evergreen students desiring a more guided and structured education, the school also features more than 60 disciplines, as well as several paths of study that combine multiple fields into a standard focus area. Students pursuing this option complete a planned sequence of programs over four years, such as integrated biology and chemistry, food and agriculture, or political economy, global studies, and environmental justice.
Other Schools Where You Can Design Your Own Major
Nontraditional Scheduling: Colorado College
Most college students are familiar with traditional semester and quarter systems and the requirement that a student must take four classes, or 12 credits per semester, to be considered a full-time student. However, some schools eschew these established formats and operate block schedules that require attendees to take a single class for several weeks at a time.
What Is Block Scheduling?
In 1970, Colorado College began operating an academic schedule known as the Block Plan, in which students take a single class for a three-and-a-half week period known as a block. This gives students time to fully engage with a single topic and not worry about juggling various projects, tests, and reading assignments for multiple classes.
The Block Plan is intended to be an immersive experience, and classes typically meet five days each week from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. One block is equivalent to a single class in a traditional semester system, and CC students take four blocks per semester, with an optional winter half block and summer session also available. Each block is followed by a four-day block break, which gives students time to prepare for their next course.
What Are the Benefits?
Aside from engaging with one topic at a time, the Block Plan's structure offers many advantages to students. The lack of conflicting class schedules allows professors more freedom to plan trips relevant to the course material, even to locations as far away as France and China. Additionally, classes with one teacher are capped at 25 students, which encourages bonding between students and greater familiarity and access to the instructor.
Tamara Bentley, a professor and director of Asian studies at CC, explains that professors teach just one class per block as well, which allows them to better familiarize themselves with students.
"Because of the intensity of the blocks, you become close to the students. When a student asks me to write a letter of recommendation, I remember exactly who they are. I remember what papers they wrote and I have a firm grasp on them as a person. So I'm better able to write a letter that is personal and specific to them," says Bentley.
Other Universities With Block Programs
Tuition-Free Colleges: College of the Ozarks
With student loan debt in the United States now topping $1.5 trillion, affordability has become increasingly important for many prospective students. While scholarships, grants, and loans can help reduce expenses, many prospective students are unaware that free-tuition colleges are another option available to them.
One of the eight schools that make up the Work Colleges Consortium, College of the Ozarks has dedicated itself to ensuring that students graduate from their institution debt-free. Located just outside Branson, Missouri, this school is commonly referred to as "Hard Work U," for its vocational education program that requires every student to work in an approved work area, in exchange for paying nothing in tuition costs.
Pursuing a Vocational Education
All full-time students at C of O work 15 hours each week at an assigned campus work station. Students may select a position from a pool of 80 work areas, which includes positions at the Computer Center, Child Development Center, and Ralph Foster Museum. As students establish themselves at the university, their work responsibilities may more closely align with their field of study.
A student's cost of education is covered by a combination of credits from participation in the work program, any federal and/or state aid for which students qualify, and the Cost of Education Scholarship. Students can also cover their room and board by working six weeks per term during their summer break. Since C of O discourages student borrowing, it does not participate in federal, state, or private loan programs.