Many first- or second-year college students scramble to get their distribution requirements out of the way, the courses in which they have no interest, but are required by their institution for graduation with a degree of any kind.
Core classes by definition often spill over with students only there to check a box, and the need to serve an entire campus with enough sections of mandatory courses can result in less imaginative offerings.
Open Curriculum colleges approach undergraduate coursework with a different structure.
Rather than requiring a list of core courses before students pursue a major, Open Curriculum schools allow students to develop their own plans of study.
Working with an advisor as a guide, these undergraduates select a schedule of classes across disciplines.
Many programs ask students to choose a major or area of concentration, but quite a few allow students to design their own major if one that encompasses their areas of study does not exist.
Open Curriculum advocates talk about how motivated students become when given the freedom—and the responsibility— to design their own curriculum. Professors note that the Open Curriculum model energizes and engages students in a way that Core requirements can’t. Since students pick their own classes for specific reasons, they commit to the coursework enthusiastically.
Independent learners do well in an Open Curriculum model. The process encourages critical thinking and certain mental agility, asking students to recognize the value and purpose of each course they take.
Instead of mandating a particular body of knowledge, Open Curriculum programs invite to ask themselves why they should take a particular course. They enroll in classes they value and willingly want to explore, sparking innovation and cross-disciplinary thinking.
Open Curriculum allows students to become the “Man, Thinking” Emerson famously invoked, the true American Scholar who rises above being a “mere thinker.” By engaging students as the architects of their own future, these programs encourage independence and vision.
Smith College (Northampton, MA)
Smith College encourages a well-rounded life through diverse interests. In this Open Curriculum program, students earn 128 credits to graduate, but no more than 48 can be in their major area, ensuring a varied background for every student.
The only required course is a first-year writing-intensive, designed for students in all fields to hone their public voice. Students declare majors by the end of their sophomore year, and while they have the option of designing a major, it must be one that doesn’t resemble any current majors.
Students can also choose a minor or an academic concentration—these designations give students a way to arrange opportunities like internships around related coursework.
Rather than requiring core courses, Smith guides students to acquire a set of “Essential Capacities” they will take from their undergraduate experience. These skills—the ability to draw on and convey knowledge, critical thinking, resourcefulness, and others—represent the school’s educational priorities in conceptual form.
The school recognizes that each student’s path to these Essential Capacities will necessarily be unique.
Smith does offer a special designation, Latin Honors, for students who take at least one course in each of Smith’s seven major fields of knowledge: Arts, Foreign Language, Literature, Historical Studies, Mathematics and Analytical Philosophy, Natural Science, and Social Science.
U.S. News ranks Smith #17 among Liberal Arts Colleges, and #18 for Undergraduate Teaching. One of the few all-female schools left, Smith numbers among the Seven Sisters, the elite group of women’s colleges in the Northeast. Its Northampton, Massachusetts campus includes a historic Botanical Garden designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.
Smith maintains a 7:1 student/faculty ratio, allowing for continuous mentorship throughout a student’s career. Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Julia Child, Margaret Mitchell, Sylvia Plath, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin all went to Smith.
Learn more about the school’s open curriculum here.
Hamilton College (Clinton, NY)
In its introduction to its version of Open Curriculum, Hamilton College invites prospective students to consider what it would be like to be in a class where everyone in the room is there because of an actual interest in the subject, rather than an obligation to a requirement.
Their Open Curriculum program offers students detailed support through multiple advisory programs. In a recent survey, Hamilton rose into the Top Ten Liberal Arts Colleges nationally for the first time in its history.
Hamilton students choose a Concentration sometimes during their sophomore year. Concentrations require extra hours of coursework in that area, along with a senior project. Faculty Academic advisors help students select courses and plan a strategy for their Concentration.
Hamilton assigns students three additional advisors: Career advisors, Fellowship advisors, and ALEX advisors. These advisors work with students for their entire undergraduate career as they navigate academic and professional goals.
Career advisors help students keep their career goals in mind as they develop the skills needed to pursue those fields. Fellowship advisors assist in the application process as students pursue fellowships, internships, and other projects. The ALEX advisory staff serves as a guide to the school’s resources and programs.
With a student body of around 2,000 and a commitment to student support, Hamilton College represents a strong choice for students interested in a close-knit academic community in rural surroundings. On a green hilltop above the picturesque village of Clinton, New York, Hamilton’s campus sits only a short drive from either Adirondack Park or the city of Syracuse.
For interested students worried about the professional practicality of Open Curriculum degrees, it’s worth knowing that 83% of Hamilton seniors graduate with at least two internships.
Noteworthy alumni span the disciplines and demonstrate the kind of expansive thinking Open Curriculum promises: playwright Thomas Meehan, authors Peter Meinke and Terry Brooks, Nobel prize winner Paul Greengard, A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor& Gamble, and Marc Randolph, co-founder of Netflix.
Discover more about Hamilton’s open curriculum.
Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA)
Grinnell faculty guide, question, coach, and encourage students. But Grinnell’s approach allows students to design their own path, to ask their own questions, and to determine how best to answer them.
More than half of Grinnell students take an independent study course. Internships and Externships give students opportunities to try out their careers while still studying. Most students complete community service work and nearly half take on a mentored senior project.
Biology and environmental science students work and study in the Conard Environmental Research Area, 365 acres with 10 different ecosystems to observe.
Small class first-year courses, like the First Year Experience, introduce students to useful academic and personal skills: critical thinking, public speaking, even resource access and stress management.
Career Communities, a campus organization, offers advising in seven different career themes, fostering collaboration and connection. An employment service and fellowship support also make a bridge for students between classroom and career.
Grinnell’s externships provide some really great bridges for many students. From working with statistics at NASA to ceramics entrepreneurship in Tokyo, Grinnell students shadow alumni in careers of all kinds.
Located between Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, the city of Grinnell, Iowa provides an iconic American small-town atmosphere. Considered a Hidden Ivy, Grinnell ranks among the best liberal arts colleges in the nation.
Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
2021 heralds Amherst’s Bicentennial, but Amherst continues to reinvent itself.
Amherst students configure their course paths in so many different ways. Interdisciplinary courses, over 40 majors, seminars, and Experiential Learning opportunities give students a wide range of study topics. A faculty advisor aids each student in navigating the many opportunities the rich academic program sets forth.
The Five College Program allows students to cross-register within the Five College Consortium, accessing over 6,000 courses, 10 museums, and extensive library resources. Centers for specialized study within the Consortium address Women’s Studies, World Languages, East Asian Studies, and the Americas. Certificates in multiple topics like International Relations, Ethnomusicology, Logic, Reproductive Rights, and many others supplement students’ majors.
Almost half of all Amherst students study abroad. Many participate in research as undergraduates, often over the summer in programs like the SURF summer science program.
Amherst has been a literary center for generations, associated with foundational American poets Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Contemporary writers David Foster Wallace, Lauren Groff, Sonia Sanchez, James Merrill, and Dan Brown also number among Amherst alumni.
The annual LitFest, literary journal The Common, and a Creative Writing Center continue Amherst’s writing tradition.
In naming Amherst #1 in Liberal Arts Colleges and #16 overall, Forbes cited the college’s resources, campus, and noteworthy alumni.
Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC)
Wake Forest University began in 1834, founded in the small town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Over a hundred years later, the college moved to the more metropolitan Winston-Salem. The University offers over 60 majors, and its Law and Medical schools date back to the turn of the last century.
Wake Forest students must apply specifically to the Open Curriculum program, which does not reduce the number of lower-division courses a student must take, but allows highly-prepared students to use advanced, honors, or overseas experiences in place of lower-division coursework. The school recommends the program for motivated students with particular talents and interests who need the flexibility to pursue their goals.
The Interdisciplinary Honors series of courses at Wake Forest offers another flexible path for motivated, qualified students. The Committee on Interdisciplinary Majors administrates both programs and selects students for participation.
Niche gives Wake Forest an A+ rating overall, with especially high marks for academics, faculty, student life, and value. Wake Forest ranked in the Top 25 programs for Kinesiology, Communications, Business, Accounting, and at #25 for the Best Professors in America.
University of Rochester (Rochester, NY)
The University of Rochester sets aside distribution requirements and invites students to determine the questions that matter most to their world, then find an approach to solving them. College competencies replace specific requirements, as Rochester coursework in all departments nurtures critical thinking, global awareness, leadership, communication, and adaptability.
The University of Rochester follows the Open Curriculum model that requires only one course, a writing-based course during Freshman year. Rochester’s Primary Writing Requirement course comes in many forms and topics, allowing students to begin pursuing their concentration area or to branch out into another interest, whether directly related or not.
Students praise Rochester for strong faculty involvement and engagement and for the cluster system, a way to supplement a major with a concentration in another area. For instance, an engineering student participating in the university’s Engineers Without Borders program took courses in public health as a way of expanding her degree.
Two demanding Rochester programs give students more access to a broad path of study. The 3-2 Program maps the undergraduate degree in three years, and a Master’s in two. The Take 5 Scholars program gives students a tuition-free fifth year to pursue more coursework in a non-degree area.
Rochester’s innovative program and its alumni success earned it a place on Newsweek’s list of New Ivies.
NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study (New York, NY)
A program within New York University, Gallatin combines milestones and close advising to help students organize interdisciplinary, customized degree programs.
All Gallatin students begin with choosing a first-year seminar. These writing-focused courses give students time to refine their interests and work with their advisors on a plan for their coursework. Recent conferences include topics from Joan of Arc, the history of data, and the social construction of reality.
Gallatin students take courses throughout NYU departments, supplemented with writing-focused Gallatin classes. Other milestones include defining an area of concentration, possibly studying abroad, Gallatin interdisciplinary seminars, and participating in the numerous internships the school’s New York City location enables.
During their senior year, Gallatin students complete a senior project, with help from a faculty advisor. Seniors also complete an oral exam before graduation.
Gallatin offers the freedom of Open Curriculum within the academic rigor of NYU’s excellent undergraduate program. Guidance remains strong throughout, and students must be accountable to the Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration essay they compose during their sophomore year. This essay must be approved by the student’s advisor, who also oversees any changes made along the way.
It’s not ranked separately from NYU, but Gallatin carries some of its own worthy statistics, especially regarding the number of its alumni to be listed among the Forbes “30 Under 30.” In the past seven years, 21 Gallatin alumni have been so honored.
Brown University (Providence, RI)
A pioneer of Open Curriculum, Brown University continues to offer one of the most individualized approaches. Brown students report that the freedom and responsibility they feel towards their undergraduate education allows them to own their experience more completely.
As an institution, Brown believes that great solutions and insights have historically come from the kind of vision that sees past boundaries and categories. At Brown, students can take the coursework they need to answer the most outstanding questions of today.
Guided by faculty advisors, Brown students have chosen coursework that allowed them to do things like partner with Hyundai to create a sonic invisibility cloak of electronic privacy, using recent sound technology innovations and natural animal camouflage traits. Another group of students joined together for a boat-building course, where 19th-century building techniques illuminated discussions on neurology and engineering.
Students can choose from nearly 2,500 courses through dozens of departments. Brown’s association with the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design gives students access to a wealth of arts courses. Brown’s many centers and institutes provide research opportunities in everything from Data Science to Archaeology.
Brown’s selective admissions process means the campus brims with motivated, exceptional students. Brown sees its mission as guidance and opportunity: they trust that Brown students will be the best designers of their own academic journeys.