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50 Unique Colleges Every Non-Traditional Student Should Consider

by Staff Writers

When it comes to getting an education, not all colleges are created equal, especially if you’re a non-traditional student or someone looking for a college experience that’s outside of the norm. While there are hundreds of brick-and-mortar and online colleges to choose from, finding one that meets your particular needs can be a challenge. You can tackle that challenge more easily by focusing on colleges that provide a unique educational experience or that cater specifically to non-traditional students. Here, we’ve put together a list of the best colleges for nontraditional students. These schools offer alternative course structures, work-study programs, flexible hours, independent study, and a wide range of other unique and adaptable aspects that can be a big help for the non-traditional student trying to fit college into an already busy life or career. Not every college listed here will be right for you, but we hope to give prospective students an idea of the scope of programs and opportunities out there, with something to meet the needs of just about every kind of learner.

Alternative Approaches

These great colleges take a different approach to higher education, often with some striking results.

  1. Evergreen State College: If you’re looking for a school that offers loads of academic freedom, then Evergreen State might just be the place for you. The experimental and non-traditional school focuses on interdisciplinary courses, doesn’t issue letter grades, and offers loads of support for first-year students.
  2. College of the Atlantic: At this Maine college, students don’t get a choice of major, there is only one option: human ecology. The school’s faculty members are experts in the field (though there are no official departments at the school, all lessons are considered interdisciplinary) and students take an assortment of history, writing, and math classes to help them complete a large-scale project on a topic of their choosing before they graduate.
  3. Goucher College: Students at Goucher must complete at least one study abroad experience and/or an off-campus internship, helping blend class education with real-world experience.
  4. Naropa University: Want college to be more Zen-like and less stressful? You may want to check out this Boulder, Colo., school. Founded by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher (and Oxford scholar), the school is inspired by Buddhist teaching but is strictly nonsectarian. Students can take psychology courses that incorporate meditation, head to the famous Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, or choose from a wide range of other unique majors.
  5. Wesleyan University: There are few schools that offer as many different and often widely varied courses as Wesleyan. Even better, there are no required courses, students are encouraged to do independent study, and stress is put on “essential capabilities,” not gen eds.
  6. St. John’s College: Students can take courses at St. John’s through two campuses, one in Maryland and one in New Mexico, but the experience at each is likely very similar. Why? Students at the school must follow a very strict core curriculum that examines the great books of Western culture, requires that students learn Greek and French, and structures all courses around discussion, not homework.
  7. Antioch College: Courses at Antioch are focused around three key areas: classroom, co-op, and community. Students must not only complete their coursework but must also engage in practical work experience and participate in student government.
  8. Alverno College: Forget about grades and standard assessments at this Milwaukee school. Instead, students are subjected to personal assessment and measurement based on eight cornerstone concepts including: communication, analysis, problem solving, valuing in decision making, social interaction, developing a global perspective, effective citizenship, and aesthetic engagement.
  9. Olin College: Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering offers a select group of engineering students the chance to get an excellent and cheap education (all students get a half-scholarship). The school takes a different approach to teaching engineering, doing away with academic departments and majors and creating a project-based curriculum.
  10. Berea College: This Kentucky school was the first interracial and coed school in the South, and is continuing its socially progressive attitude today. The school is committed to green issues and charges no tuition in exchange for 10 hours of work a week from students.
  11. Deep Springs College: Just for male students, this two-year school employs only three full-time professors, which is all they need for their class of only 26 students. There is no tuition and students live full-time on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in California, taking academic courses while learning about subjects like stargazing, knitting, and bread making.
  12. Reed College: Reed College provides one of the most rigorous academic experiences of any college in the United States, requiring every senior to produce a thesis. Something must be working at the school as it has produced six Fulbright fellows, 104 National Science Foundation fellows, two Pulitzer Prize winners, 31 Rhodes Scholars, and two MacArthur Genius Award winners.
  13. UC Santa Cruz: For most of its history, students at UCSC didn’t earn a letter grade, instead getting narrative evaluations. While letter grades are required today, the school still places heavy emphasis on the written evaluations, which can give much more detailed feedback on student performance than any one letter grade.
  14. Grinnell College: At Grinnell, students must follow the motto, “service before self.” The school boasts the highest rate of Peace Corps volunteers of any college in the nation. It also has an impressive 10 to 1 student to faculty ratio.
  15. Mount Holyoke College: This women-only college in Massachusetts (the first women’s college in the U.S.) offers an incredibly rigorous academic program that has proven especially beneficial historically for female writers.
  16. Earlham College: At this tiny liberal arts college, students spend as much time learning how to be better people as trying to get a high-paying job. Inspired by Quaker teachings, everyone at the school addresses each other by first names and personal contact and interaction is considered essential. Additionally, most students study abroad and the school is the most diverse in the nation.
  17. Maharishi University of Management: Maharishi University offers students who want to get an MBA a chance to do so in a consciousness-focused environment. All meals on campus are vegetarian, sustainability is promoted, meditation is offered on campus, and students take only one full-time course per month.
  18. Green Mountain College: Green Mountain College is unique in a number of respects. The college offers a four-year guarantee, promising that students will complete their studies in four years or fewer. Additionally, the school has a strong environmental mission, requiring all students to complete a 37-credit Environmental Liberal Arts General Education Program.
  19. Whitman College: Originally founded as a seminary school, this Washington school became a four-year degree-granting institution all the way back in 1883. It’s still not quite the usual college, however, as it requires passing comprehensive examinations in order for students to graduate.
  20. Beloit College: At Beloit College, students will receive an education that’s focused on experiential learning, learner agency, and reflective connection-making between out-of-classroom and in-classroom learning experiences, essentially asking students to put what they learn into practice before they ever graduate.
  21. Austin College: If study abroad is your goal, then Austin College might be a great choice for you. More than 70% of students study abroad during their four years at the school. Additionally, the school boasts a 13 to 1 student to faculty ratio and has no teaching assistants so all classes are taught by full faculty members.
  22. Allegheny College: A small school of just over 2,000 students, Allegheny College stands out in that it requires students to choose a minor as well as a major, often encouraging unusual combinations and mandating that all minors be in a different division than a student’s major. If a major is in the humanities, for instance, a minor must be in the sciences and vice versa.
  23. St. Olaf College: St. Olaf makes sure that all of its students have a strong foundation by requiring them to complete nearly 20 different required courses. It also boasts an impressive study abroad program and sends more students abroad than nearly any other school in the U.S.
  24. Rhodes College: Education at Rhodes centers on small classes and places great emphasis on writing and research. Students are encouraged to participate both in service activities and in off-campus research programs.

Unique Schedules

Can’t make the usual college schedule fit into your life? Consider one of these schools instead.

  1. College of Idaho: Students can take part in the PEAK program, a unique experience that focuses on four different academic peaks including: humanities and fine arts, social sciences and history, natural sciences and mathematics, and professional studies and enhancement. Terms are divided up into 12 weeks, with a one-week break in between.
  2. Cornell College: At Iowa’s Cornell College, the academic year is divided up into eight terms that are each three and a half weeks. Students only take one course at a time, so full attention can be afforded to each course.
  3. Tuscuclum College: This Greenville, Tenn., college uses a system called a focused calendar to divide up its academic year. Each semester has four blocks, within which students will focus on a specific class. Additional blocks are offered during the summer.
  4. Colorado College: Colorado College is another school with a unique way of dividing up the school year. Students at the school use a block plan, dividing the academic year up into eight blocks. Students will take one course during each block, but some courses extend over multiple blocks, depending on the material to be covered.
  5. Knox College: This highly selective liberal arts college in Illinois employs a 3-3 academic calendar, where students take three courses in each of the three 10-week terms. In addition to this unique schedule, students at Knox also get a chance to design their own educational plans and are held to a strict honor code.
  6. Eckerd College: Students at Eckerd take courses on a 4-1-4 schedule, with the 1 representing the winter term when students concentrate on only taking one course at a time. In addition to this fairly unique schedule, students are required to complete a thesis or pass comprehensive examinations in order to graduate.

Choose Your Own Ed-venture

Prospective students who are interested in designing their own curriculum or doing independent study should put these colleges on their short list.

  1. Hampshire College: Hampshire College offers students an experience that’s like no other school. In the first year, students take classes in five “schools of thought”; the second year, students study a chosen subject in depth; and the third year, students complete a large-scale project. All of this work is put into a portfolio and no grades are given for work.
  2. Bennington College: Bennington College’s curriculum is based around an idea which they call “The Plan Process,” which helps students to build a plan for their education, designing their own curriculum and objectives throughout their education.
  3. The New School: Renowned for its forward-thinking attitude, this school and its graduate school were created as places for misunderstood or persecuted intellectuals to find respite. While today it isn’t the intellectual asylum it once was, this school maintains its commitment to alternative education, offering unique courses and loads of flexibility in choosing a course of study.
  4. Brown University: Brown might be part of the Ivy League, but it isn’t structured the way that many other Ivies are, thanks to the inspiration of its founder Francis Wayland who believed that students ought to have a choice in when and what they study. Students can take as many courses as they’d like in a given field, as there are no distribution requirements (meant to push students into covering a wide range of topics) like there are at other schools.
  5. New College of Florida: This Sarasota, Fla., college does away with a set curriculum, instead asking students to create their own proposed course of study for each semester. Students sign a contract binding them to these courses, and are evaluated at the end of each period to see if they’ve met objectives and fulfilled their contractual obligations.
  6. Sarah Lawrence College: Sarah Lawrence is known for having rigorous academic standards, a low student-to-faculty ratio, and a highly individualized course of student. The system works by asking students to study what they like within four key areas, with mentors (called “dons”) guiding them through the academic experience.
  7. Oberlin College: At Oberlin, students can expect to spend their winter term pursuing self-directed education, either taking an existing course or creating one of their own. Throughout the year, any student can also take part in the Experimental College, a department that lets students, faculty, and the public teach any courses not offered by the university.
  8. College of Wooster: Students at Wooster get the opportunity to take advantage of a well-known independent study program, which pairs students with a faculty advisor to complete a written thesis or large-scale project.
  9. Marlboro College: An alternative liberal arts school, this Vermont school has some unique requirements for students, including a “clear writing requirement” which students must complete in their first year and the design and execution of a plan of concentration, which students will work on during their junior and senior years, largely independently.

Designed for Non-Traditional Students

These schools offer programs that are designed specifically for non-traditional students.

  1. Smith College: At Smith College, students can take part in the Ada Comstock Scholars program, designed specifically for non-traditional students. Students in the program can take any courses the school offers and are encouraged to take their time in choosing a major.
  2. College of the Ozarks: Also called Hard Work U, this college offers students free tuition in exchange for work. While the religiously affiliated school may not be for everyone, for those who want to graduate with little to no debt, it might be a solid option.
  3. Agnes Scott: Agnes Scott offers a special program for students who are returning to college, either from a previous attempt at school or for the first time as adults. The program is called Woodruff Scholars and offers students who have unique needs more opportunities and flexibility.
  4. Empire State College: Part of SUNY, this college caters to the needs of non-traditional students, specifically targeting adult learners. There are a number of distance learning options at both the graduate and undergraduate level that can make getting a degree easier for those who can’t travel to the school’s campus.
  5. Excelsior College: Formerly known as Regents College, this private college focuses on the adult learner, offering a wide range of distance learning programs that are highly flexible, making it possible to balance the needs of work and family while attending school.
  6. Thomas Edison State College: Located in Trenton, N.J., this public college is inspired by the self-directed learning of namesake Thomas Alva Edison. The school has a highly regarded distance learning program and has been ranked among the best for using technology to help adults learn.
  7. Trinity College: Through the Trinity IDP, adult learners can finish a degree program or start a new one, getting support from staff and faculty and the ability to take courses part time or on a more flexible schedule.
  8. Bryn Mawr College: At Bryn Mawr, non-traditional students can enroll through the McBride Scholars program, which gives women ages 24 and older the chance to attend the college either part-time or full-time.
  9. Bard College: This small and highly selective college offers education to 10th and 11th grade students, allowing them to start on a college education before they’d traditionally be done with their high school education. If you’re an outstanding, highly motivated high school student, it might just be the place for you.
  10. Franklin University: Franklin University, one of the largest private universities in Ohio, was founded to meet the needs of adult learners. As such, it provides a wide range of flexible programs that can easily adapt to the schedules of working adults. Those in the Army can also participate in a distance education program through the school.
  11. Charter Oak State College: Charter Oak allows students to earn credit through testing and exams, military training, lifelong learning, and transferred credits. The school is geared toward non-traditional students as well, making it easy to find courses that fit any needs, however unique.