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Open Curriculum Schools: 11 Colleges That Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning

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Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

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The flexibility of your college curriculum can be very important when you’re deciding where to spend the next four years. Requirements can have a strong impact on your education and career goals.


If you’re hoping to play a strong hand in shaping your own educational experience, you should consider attending a college with an open curriculum. What exactly is an open curriculum and which colleges offer the option? Learn about 11 schools that have a version of or option for an open curriculum.


What is an Open Curriculum?

An open curriculum has few if any distribution and other requirements. Students often have the option to design their own programs of study, majors, or concentrations. That doesn’t necessarily mean there are zero classes you have to take or credits you need to fulfill; often, you’ll still have some requirements for your major, even if you design your own, although there are far fewer than there are at many other colleges and universities.


An open curriculum doesn’t necessarily mean that students don’t choose majors or concentrations; they simply don’t have to meet any core requirements. At many of these schools, students do declare majors, and if they graduate without one, it’s likely because they didn’t fulfill their major requirements.


Some open-curriculum colleges have students write a proposal or thesis about their work, particularly if they design their own majors or programs.


Students who don’t fulfill their major requirements may have the option of receiving a general degree, such as a Liberal Arts degree, at some schools, such as Amherst College. However, this plan is generally seen as a last resort, so if you choose an open-curriculum college, be prepared to choose a major or create your own.


An open curriculum program allows students to take control of their learning and can be beneficial to self-motivated students. If students are undecided about their majors, these programs can give them the freedom to explore different possibilities. However, they may not be the best option for students who lack motivation or aren’t self-starters, because they might not be able to take full advantage of the freedom and flexibility these programs offer.


Open Curriculum vs. Core Curriculum

Schools that have a core curriculum require students to take certain classes regardless of their major or school with a college or university. A core curriculum differs from distribution requirements, which mean students must take a certain number of courses in a department or designation, such as four math or science courses.


Examples of schools with core curriculums include Columbia University and the University of Chicago.


Curious about which schools offer an open curriculum? Read on to find out.


Eleven Colleges and Universities with an Open Curriculum

1. Amherst College

Amherst has no core curriculum. Students must complete one first-year seminar and requirements for their majors. There is an Independent Scholar Program available for students who don’t want to choose a single major. In this program, a select number of students plan an individual program of study under the guidance of a “tutor” and must have it approved by a committee.


Independent Scholars are free to plan a personal program of study under the direction of a tutor, chosen by the student with the advice and consent of the Committee.  


2. Brown University

Famous for its open curriculum, Brown’s only curriculum requirement is a single writing course. Students must complete their concentration requirements but may take any course satisfactory/no credit in lieu of receiving a letter grade. Students may participate in Group Independent Study Projects, in which they design the course with faculty members, after having completed at least one semester.


Participating students bear major responsibility for researching the course topic, constructing a syllabus, and planning and conducting the academic coursework.


3. Grinnell College

At Grinnell, students design their own curricula rather than choosing a prescribed major. The only requirement is that students must take one first-year tutorial, choosing among 35 possible topics, which have included Kendrick Lamar, Coping with Climate Change, and Exploring the Magical World of Calvin and Hobbes in the past.


4. Hamilton College

Hamilton is known for its “Proseminars,” small classes that maximize interaction between students and instructors and promote writing and critical thinking skills. Students must pass at least three writing courses and complete their concentration requirements. Their coursework must also include a diversity element. Individual departments approach this requirement in different ways consistent with their disciplines, but the overarching idea is that it encourages students to think critically about the experiences of social groups around the world.

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5. Hampshire

Hampshire allows students to build their own concentrations. They choose courses from five interdisciplinary schools:


  • School of Cognitive Science
  • School of Critical Social Inquiry
  • School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies
  • School of Interdisciplinary Arts
  • School of Natural Science


In their final year, students complete a yearlong advanced study project.


6. NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study

A small school within New York University, Gallatin students design their own programs of study under the guidance of advisers.


7. Smith College

This all-women’s college has no distribution requirements. Students design their curricula under the guidance of an adviser and must meet the requirements of their major.


8. University of Rochester

While the University of Rochester has some requirements, it has a more open curriculum than many other colleges. Students choose majors within one of three divisions: humanities, social sciences, or natural science and engineering. They must also complete one set of three related courses, called clusters, in the two divisions outside of their major. There is a writing requirement.


9. Vassar College

Vassar has some requirements, but like U of R, the curriculum is more open than most schools. There are nine multidisciplinary programs and six interdepartmental programs. Students may choose a concentration in a department, direct their own learning in the Independent program, or pursue multidisciplinary and interdepartmental programs. Students must complete a first-year writing seminar and their major requirements.


10. Wake Forest University

Wake Forest offers an open curriculum option to a small number of high-achieving students. These students design their own course of study with an adviser. The plans must be approved by a committee. Students who pursue this option do not need to fulfill core requirements.


11. Wesleyan University

Wesleyan has no core requirements. Students choose courses under the guidance of advisers and create “customized itineraries” in three spheres: the arts and humanities (HA), the social and behavioral sciences (SBS), and the natural sciences and mathematics (NSM).


Is an Open Curriculum College for You?

Open curricula aren’t for every student, but they can offer flexibility and independence to those who choose a college that offers this plan. Whatever path you choose, be sure to research the college thoroughly and visit if you can to get a feel for the campus and whether it’s a good fit for you. Remember: This is the place where you’ll transition into adulthood and gain the skills you’ll need for your career, so make sure it’s the right one!


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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.