A student at Warren Wilson College who had never been a great student told me she would have dropped out of any other school. What is it about this college that enables her to thrive? She credits the requirement that all students work ten or more hours a week for the school, whether they are on financial aid or not.
While this might sound like a burden, it’s actually a terrific opportunity for students to contribute to the college community and develop skills that enhance their self-esteem. The potential dropout told me that when she arrived at Warren Wilson, she started working in the greenhouse. She became greenhouse manager and gained confidence that helped her do well as a math major. Another student did electrical work for the school. Some students work on the school’s organic farm. For students who may not be academic stars, the opportunity to develop competence in another area and not have their identity based solely on academic performance can be especially empowering. While Warren Wilson’s work program is unconventional, the curriculum is similar to most other colleges.
Other schools offer innovative academic programs. At Washington’s Evergreen State College, students take one interdisciplinary program each academic quarter, organized around a theme. For instance, “The Ties That Bind,” looked at relationships with families, friends, communities, the natural environment, and history. Students in this program received credit in psychology, writing, history, performing arts, film theory and video production. At most colleges, a course in perception is likely to focus on the biological foundations of the senses. The interdisciplinary approach at Evergreen means students also use literature and film to study how the arts structure or transform our perceptions, and they earn credits in biology, literature, art history, cognitive psychology, expository writing and quantitative reasoning.
Another school with an interdisciplinary approach is College of the Atlantic, on the Maine coast. All students graduate with a BA in Human Ecology, but they can focus on areas including climate change and energy, sustainable business, marine science, literature and writing, visual arts and design. Students, with faculty advising, develop an individualized program. In addition to an oceanfront campus and environmentally conscious students, this school is known for great food.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the curriculum at St. John’s College, with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, is totally structured. Students spend four years reading and discussing the great books of the Western tradition. There are no majors or electives, and all students study Greek and French, as well as math and music. For students who are willing to give up the freedom to choose what they study, the payoff is a true classic education.
While some of these innovative schools have no grades, students should still expect to work hard. In small discussion-based classes, it’s obvious when someone is unprepared. Students who are not ready to take a lot of responsibility for their studies, as well as those who want a more typical campus life, with football and fraternities, should probably head for a more traditional college.
But students who feel restricted by the conventions of high school, and who have genuine intellectual curiosity, may thrive in a nontraditional college. These schools are not for everyone, but for the right student, they can offer a great learning experience.