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    Open Curriculum Colleges: Everything You Need to Know

    By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: November 13th, 2023
    Open Curriculum Colleges: Everything You Need to Know

    Open curriculum colleges are a great opportunity for self-driven students who are hoping to forge their own path in college. If you are an independent learner who wants to create your own schedule and combine disciplines in a unique way, an open curriculum plan might be right for you. Here’s everything you should know about open curriculum colleges and the different ways that the term is used.

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    What are open curriculum schools?

    Open curriculum schools allow students to choose their own classes and make their own schedules. Some colleges still require that students have a major, but their major requirements function in a different way than other schools. Rather than a set core curriculum of classes, students will design their own course load with the help of advisors and teachers. And rather than dictating a set schedule of courses that you need to take, your major will help guide your self-directed focus. It also will help demonstrate to grad schools and future employers what you studied.

    You’ll work together with teachers and advisors to decide how to explain and justify your studies. You can discuss your goals with your professors to determine whether a class fits into your academic goals. If you have goals of getting into law school after graduation, you can share these goals with your teachers and they can suggest classes that will make you more appealing to law schools. If you want a job as a marine biologist after you graduate, they’ll help you with that too. No matter your goal, the faculty will be in your corner to help you design the right program to reach it.

    With this added freedom, however, comes added responsibility. As you are designing your own academic program, you will have to fit it all together yourself. This will be a big part of your learning process; figuring out the way your classes connect will be central to your educational journey. Going through this process can be hugely beneficial to help you get everything you want out of college. But it is also a big responsibility that you should ensure you want to take on before you agree to it.

    Also see: What is a liberal arts degree?

    Pros of open curriculum schools

    • Flexibility to pursue all of your academic interests
    • Individual attention from faculty to ensure that your course load is preparing you for your future goals
    • Academically enriching experiences in maintaining agency in your studies
    • No need to take gen-ed classes that you are not interested in
    • Teaches a sense of responsibility for yourself and your education

    Cons of open curriculum schools

    • Might be harder to market your degree after college if your major is niche or uncommon
    • Could be overwhelming for students who lack motivation or prefer structure
    • Increases the chance of changes in your major, which could result in additional semesters if you don’t manage to complete the curriculum you want in four years

    Also see: How to choose a major

    Related: What is a minor in college?

    List of open curriculum schools

    Here is a list of some of the best-known open curriculum schools. It’s important to note that “open curriculum” can hold different meanings in different contexts. Some of these colleges have no distribution requirements whatsoever, so everyone is in an open curriculum program. Others have some fixed majors but allow students to design their own major and apply for it.

    • Amherst College – Amherst is one of the most extreme examples of open curriculum. There are no core classes or distribution requirements. You can choose each of the classes you take with more than 400 courses offered each term
    • Cornell CollegeWhile there are some course requirements, they are much more flexible than at most schools
    • University of WashingtonThere are three types of majors offered at UW either open, minimum requirements and capacity-constrained. Your major choice will affect your open-curriculum eligibility
    • Brown University Students develop their own course of study if they choose and can design the classes they take
    • Grinnell College – Grinnell only requires one class throughout its entire four years, which is the First Year Tutorial during their first semester
    • Hamilton CollegeYou can design your own major, but there are certain requirements that you must meet, including writing, quantitative, and symbolic reasoning
    • Vassar CollegeThough there are still major and diversification requirements, they are less strict than at other schools
    • Wake Forest UniversityYou can work closely with advisors to craft your plan of study and declare your major during your sophomore year

    Related: Guide to double major

    Next steps

    If you felt constricted by the rigid class structure of high school, you might find some relief in open curriculum colleges! The opportunity to forge your own path in college is exciting and can open the door to a new relationship with academics. We recommend applying to some open curriculum schools and talking to students there to see if it would be a good fit for you. 

    If you do end up choosing an open curriculum route, one of the most important pieces of advice is that you maintain frequent communication with your advisors and professors. Since you won’t have formal structure in your courses, you’ll want to constantly be noting how your class material fits in the larger framework of your education. The best way to do this is to reflect on your experiences with professors. This way, when senior year is around the corner, you will be ready for any senior capstone exercise and feel like you processed your education holistically. Good luck in your decision!

    Related: How to choose a college

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    Frequently asked questions about open curriculum colleges 

    What is the difference between a traditional college and an open curriculum college?

    In a traditional curriculum, there are specific course requirements that all students must complete, such as general education classes. In an open curriculum, students have more freedom to choose their courses, often with broad guidelines.

    Can I still have a major at an open curriculum college?

    Yes, open curriculum colleges offer majors and minors which allows students to focus on specific areas of study. However, you have more freedom to choose courses within your major.

    Are open curriculum colleges more competitive to get into?

    Admission requirements vary by college, but some open curriculum colleges may be more selective due to the demand for this unique education style.

    How do employers view degrees from open curriculum colleges?

    Employers generally value degrees from an open curriculum college as they often empathize critical thinking and the ability to create a personalized educational path.

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