7 Unusual Schools That Approach Education in Unusual Ways

Consider a not-so-typical college experience. 

When you try to imagine what it will be like going to college, you probably picture an academic year structured into two semesters (Fall and Spring) filled with a number of different classes that you take on different days of the week (typically Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday). Toss in a couple of short breaks or so (Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring) and about two and half months off for the summer, and you’ve pretty much got the standard academic year.

Keep it up for about 4 years or so (possibly including some “study abroad” time), and you’ll finally graduate, ready to face the real world or continue your education at a professional or graduate school.

While this “standard” model represents the model that most schools follow, it’s not the only educational model out there.

Here are seven schools that approach a college education with a distinctive twist all their own.

  • Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa: While it may sound like a branch of the Cornell University (the Ivy League school located in Ithaca, NY), Cornell College in Iowa is a completely different school that approaches education in a unique way. Instead of taking different classes on different days of the week like students at many colleges, students of this small liberal arts college take one class at a time. Known as the “block plan,” this method divides the year into 8 “blocks” of about three and a half weeks. During each block, students focus on one subject, typically mixing in-class lecture time (about 30 hours) with lab or some other sort of “experiential learning” time. After each “block” students enjoy a “block break” of four days. The result is that students engage in what amounts to one month of intense study for each class with a traditional breaks thrown in.
  • Sarah Lawrence College, Yonkers, New York: If you’re someone who really likes personal attention, then Sarah Lawrence might be the place for you. Unlike many schools where getting a meeting with a professor is marginally easier than scoring a meeting with the Pope, at Sarah Lawrence each student is assigned to a particular faculty tutor who works with them on an individual basis to help them in their studies. This system, based on the system used at the venerable Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK, allows students to pursue their interests in-depth while ensuring that they stay on track academically. Of course, this kind of attention does come with a price: Sarah Lawrence is currently the most expensive college in the United States, with a total cost of attendance topping out at over $60,000 per year.
  • St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland & Santa Fe, New Mexico: At St. Johns College, nobody ever asks “what’s your major?” Why? Because they only have one: Liberal Arts. Students at this 230 year-old school follow what’s known as The Great Books Program, a curriculum based on the discussion of the major works of Western philosophy including religious, philosophical, historical, mathematical, literary and scientific texts.
  • Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: One of the biggest problems obstacles graduates face when they try to land their first job is also one of the most vexing: in order to get hired, you need experience but in order to get experience, you need to get hired. It’s enough to drive anyone nutty…unless you’re a Drexel grad. At Drexel, students have the opportunity to work for more than 1,600 organizations located in 28 states and 25 international locations through Drexel’s famed co-operative education program. While it typically takes students a little longer to graduate, most are able to rack up as many as 18 months of full-time work experience before getting their diplomas, putting them far ahead of the rest of the job-seeking pack when they head out into the working world.
  • Thomas Edison State College, Trenton, New Jersey: The fact that Thomas Edison State College bills itself as “exclusively for adults” should be the first hint that TE State isn’t your typical college. Instead of trying to fill its hallowed halls with 18 year olds fresh out of high school, Thomas Edison State is focused on helping adults complete their college degrees, while juggling the typical demands of adult life like kids, jobs and more responsibilities than you can shake your walker at. Because of this adult focus, Thomas Edison has also become one of the first schools to offer a Prior Learning Assessment that allows you to get college credit for knowledge you’ve acquired outside of the classroom through work, volunteer activities, military service or just life experience. Applicants can submit a portfolio that demonstrates what they’ve learned outside of school that is then assessed by their Office of Prior Learning Assessment to determine how many credits it may be worth towards your degree.
  • University of Wisconsin System Flex Option: If you think about it, the current system of higher education seems more geared towards granting you a degree based on how much time you’ve spent in school rather than how much you actually know. If you think this is a silly way to go about your education, you might want to check out the University of Wisconsin’s new Flex Option, a course of study that allows you to progress towards your degree by demonstrating what you know through various assessment options. Because it’s a program based solely on competency (rather than traditional classroom attendance), you can work at your own pace learning what you need to know or getting credit for knowledge you may have already acquired in your life. In a world increasingly filled with free online learning options, the University of Wisconsin’s Flex Option might offer a glimpse of how education will work in the future.
  • Berea College, Berea, Kentucky: Here’s a word you don’t hear too often when talking about a highly-ranked college with a great reputation: FREE. Yes, you read that right: free. Every student admitted to this college located in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains receives what amounts to a scholarship worth about $84,000 that covers their 4-year education. In exchange, students are expected to work at least 10 hours per week on campus or with various service projects the campus is involved in. For students interested in getting a great education for free and doing some good in the world, Berea’s definitely worth looking in to.
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