Alternative Colleges: Unique Schools for Unique Students

This article features several unique colleges with nontraditional approaches to majors, scheduling, and tuition-free education.
portrait of Mikael Mulugeta
Mikael Mulugeta
Read Full Bio

Writer & Editor

Mikael Mulugeta has worked as a copy editor and writer with BestColleges covering college life, internships, and student debt. He holds a BA in English and an MA in strategic communication from the University of Iowa. Mikael Mulugeta is a former c...
Updated on March 22, 2023
Learn more about our editorial process

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. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

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.

A pink-haired student smiles

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

Lesley University

Chevron Down
A private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lesley offers a self-designed major to students with a 3.0 GPA or higher. Undergraduates may submit a program proposal in their second semester which includes a personal statement, a description of their intended concentration and how it will meet their educational goals, and potential independent studies or internships they plan to pursue.

University of Maryland

Chevron Down
UMD offers students an undergraduate individual studies degree, where students design their program by combining disciplines and work closely with a faculty member. Students create a major that combines independent research, a course schedule, and study abroad opportunities.

St. Olaf College

Chevron Down
Located in Northfield, Minnesota, St. Olaf's Center for Integrative Studies is entirely dedicated to cross-disciplinary academics. SOC also hosts a web community where students who designed their own major can connect and share their portfolios, projects, experiences, and more.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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.

Several students on a playfield talk and laugh

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

Knox College

Chevron Down
Knox College uses a 3-3 academic calendar, where students take three classes over a 10-week trimester. This system serves as a middle ground between something like CC's Block Plan and a more traditional academic schedule.

Spalding University

Chevron Down
Spalding University features a customizable block schedule. Spalding students take six weeks of classes, followed by a one-week break until the next block. Unlike other universities, undergraduate students can choose to take one or two classes per block and still graduate within four years.

Cornell College

Chevron Down
In 1978, Cornell College adopted the "One Course at a Time" curriculum, which operates like Colorado College's Block Plan. Students take a single class per 18 day block, and have eight blocks each academic year.

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.

A teacher explains a mechanical concept to students in a classroom

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.

Other Tuition-Free Schools

Alice Lloyd College

Chevron Down
Located in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, Alice Lloyd College completely covers tuition for students residing in the 108-county, five state Central Appalachia service area. The Appalachian Leaders College Scholarship guarantees that students will pay nothing in out-of-pocket tuition expenses, but they still pay for other expenses like room and board. All full-time students are required to work between 10 to 20 hours each week.

Berea College

Chevron Down
Through its Tuition Promise Scholarship, students at Berea College pay nothing in tuition and instead work in the school's labor program to pay for their education. Learners can choose from 100 college and off-campus work programs and earn more as they progress and take on more responsibilities.

United States Service Academies

Chevron Down
The U.S. service academies all fully fund four-year educations. The academies include the U.S. Air Force Academy,U.S. Coast Guard Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, U.S. Military Academy (West Point), and the U.S. Naval Academy. In addition to tuition, some academies will also cover the costs of room and board, as well as medical and dental care. However, in exchange for having education expenses covered, students are required to serve in the military after graduation. Typically, students must serve five years in active-duty and three years in the Reserves. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.