By Heather Schwedel
If the thought of taking 15 credit hours every semester to fulfill a bunch of predetermined requirements makes you gag, maybe it's time to think outside the college box. It's fine to want a more mainstream undergrad experience, but it's also more than OK to do something completely different. Whether it's a curriculum you can customize based on your interests or a program with a particular outside-the-classroom emphasis that you crave, somewhere out there, there's a college (and probably more than one!) that's right for you. Here are just a few of the super cool and entirely unique schools to consider.
St. John's College
"What's your major?" wouldn't make the best icebreaker at St. John's because the school only offers undergraduate degrees in one thing: liberal arts. With two campuses (one in Annapolis, Maryland and one in Santa Fe, New Mexico) that students are encouraged to transfer between, St. John's follows a strict curriculum that's known as the Great Books Program, based on studying touchstone works of Western Civilization (everything from The Iliad and The Odyssey to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations). There are other schools -- like Columbia and the University of Chicago -- that require a core set of classes emphasizing the classics, but St. John's is the most hardcore among them, with a structure that leaves little if any room for electives. Basically, you've gotta be a purist. Also, class discussion and writing assignments are paramount, but tests? Not so much.
Founded by a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Naropa is the first Buddhist-inspired academic institution to receive United States accreditation, and the Boulder, Colorado college retains a distinctly Zen approach to higher education. In addition to offering traditional classes, students must fulfill a "body-mind practice" requirement (a.k.a. earn credits for taking yoga!), and the university encourages professors to incorporate meditation, tea ceremonies, and other contemplative activities into their lesson plans. Students' spiritual lives are treated with just as much importance as their intellectual lives, plus we have to imagine the whole Buddhist thing probably minimizes school-related stress.
Unlike that other Cornell in upstate New York, Cornell College is notable for both its Iowa hilltop campus and its "One Course at a Time" curriculum. That's right, instead of requiring four or five classes a semester, Cornell breaks up the academic year into eight three-and-a-half week terms. In practice, this can mean anything from really immersing yourself in bio lab (without having to rush off to your next class!) to field tripping to a museum for an art history lecture to jetting off to Spain for an intensive language course. Advocates of the curriculum argue that when you take several classes at a time, some are going to feel more high-priority causing others to fall by the wayside, and that with just one class on your plate, it's easier to really focus. It can make for an extreme schedule for sure (thank goodness for the four-day breaks between blocks), though arguably it's more similar to the pace of real life than the standard undergrad model.
Hampshire, in Amherst, Massachusetts, is the ultimate you-can-major-in-anything school (in addition to being a pssst-there-are-no-grades school). Well, let's back up a little: Hampshire students don't technically major, but they do design their own individualized concentrations, and in their last year, work on independent study projects tied to their interests. Hampshire itself is kind of an experiment, conceived in 1958 when the administrations of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts got together to reexamine the concept of higher education. Now Hampshire is the small, artsy member of the Five College Consortium, the kind of place that attracts a steady stream of creative, self-directed students. And yep, instead of letter grades, students receive narrative evaluations.
College of the Ozarks
Paying for college can be a huge burden, but luckily there are some schools out there committed to finding alternative ways for students to pay for school. The College of the Ozarks is a religiously-affiliated school in Missouri that charges no tuition; instead, all students maintain work-study jobs for 15 hours per week, in addition to two 40-hour weeks during breaks. (Fun fact: The college also goes by the moniker "Hard Work U.") Potential job placements include the campus art gallery, radio station, and president's office, just to name a few. Students can pay for their entire educations (room and board included) through the work program -- no loans or scholarships needed.
Ohio's Antioch College was founded by the education reformer Horace Mann, who also provided its motto: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." The school is big on the greater good and has been known for its progressive ways for most of its existence. All students are required to hold full-time co-op jobs by switching off study and work semesters, engage with the community, and even participate in the governance of the school. Antioch had to close in 2008 due to financial troubles, but it reopened in 2011, and to reestablish itself, is offering full scholarships to anyone admitted through 2014.
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