Charting Your Own Course: Exploring Open Curriculum Universities and Colleges

09/02/202421 minute read
Charting Your Own Course: Exploring Open Curriculum Universities and Colleges

Wondering if everyone really has to take lots of general education courses in college — and if you'll have to? Ever heard of an open curriculum approach? Open curriculum models offer an alternative to core courses and general ed requirements, but many colleges and universities don’t offer open curriculum.

An open curriculum model puts students in the driver seat, offering unconventional flexibility and personal agency for choosing classes and creating a sequence of learning, and maybe even designing a personalized major.

In this post we’ll look at open curriculum in depth: what it is, how it works, some ways it varies from school to school, and its prominent benefits and challenges. We’ve also prepared an overview of top open curriculum colleges and universities — to jump start your admissions planning if you decide an open curriculum is a sine qua non for your college experience!


Open Curriculum: Empowerment, Choice, and Self-discovery

Most universities still stick to a curriculum model that can feel reminiscent of… well high school. During the first two years at most US universities students are typically required to take courses across diverse disciplines outside their major.

At some schools, there are even prescribed “core courses” — specific courses every student has to take.

For decades, some colleges and universities have sought to remove these limitations, creating a more open academic landscape that fosters personal exploration and student choice and agency. This unconventional approach, the open curriculum, is designed to empower students, through more academic flexibility and more control over course selection.

Today, many students and parents are discovering open curriculum benefits before college and may want to enjoy similar approaches in college years too.

For creatively exploring or bridging interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary interests, or in order to pursue more intense specialization and deeper inquiry, the open curriculum offers unparalleled flexibility.

In this post we’ll shine a light on what an open curriculum is and explain how it measures up compared to conventional approaches, delving into the advantages and challenges this kind of approach may entail for students’ first years in college.

We encourage you to keep reading to learn more as you figure out if open curriculum colleges and universities are right for you and to explore the leading schools embracing an open curriculum approach.

What Is an Open Curriculum?

At its heart, an open curriculum is a philosophy of education that prioritizes student choice and self-directed learning. Unlike traditional curriculum approaches, where students must complete a set of core courses or satisfy substantive breadth requirements, open curriculum institutions allow undergraduates much more freedom of choice — from picking all of your own courses to designing your own major.

This model is rooted in the belief that undergraduate learning is an ideal time to connect intellectual exploration, self-discovery, and critical thinking. For this reason, open curriculum schools typically encourage you to explore or traverse various disciplines, but with choices guided by your own interests and passions. This entails forging your own curriculum path, in close dialogue with a supportive faculty advisor.

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Putting the Open Curriculum Approach into Perspective

After four years in high school, many students long for greater independence and freedom that college offers. For these students an open curriculum offers an appealing autonomy; others students may find an open curriculum offers too much freedom and feel overwhelmed by the array of choices before them as they start college.

These opposing responses to new-found freedom and autonomy in college highlight the appeal and potential challenges of open curriculum.

There are conflicting views about open curriculum in academic circles too.

Let’s start with the “core curriculum” model, at the other end of the spectrum from the open curriculum approach.

A core curriculum approach is the most prescriptive. It will often include a narrower range of options for students when it comes to course requirements alongside those specific to your chosen major.

This approach typically includes one or more uniform freshman courses or seminars — think Great Books type seminars, or academic writing workshops — which are required for all students, regardless of major.

A recent Wall Street Journal piece defended the core curriculum model this way:

Colleges need more programs where students of different backgrounds can wrestle together with the big questions posed by the humanities.

(“Great Books Can Heal Our Divided Campuses.” Andrew Delbaco, Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2023.)

Many universities tout the benefits of this kind of “core curriculum” because it’s believed to help bring all students, irrespective of major and background, into a shared learning space through exposure to so-called universal questions, themes, and concepts.

At other universities, leaders see it differently, contending that a core curriculum limits individual discovery and may also close doors to more diverse viewpoints.

Leaders at Brown University — a school renowned as a pioneer of the open curriculum — assert that an open curriculum is exceptionally well aligned with the goals of undergraduate learning:

  • fostering greater student engagement, introspection, and self-discovery
  • infusing campus life with greater intellectual vibrancy and creativity
  • leading to more innovative, solution-oriented thinking

Between the prescriptive “core curriculum” and highly unstructured “open curriculum,” the “distribution requirements” approach falls in the middle, requiring students select “breadth” courses across a range of disciplines — liberal arts, fine arts, STEM, and social sciences…

The rationale is that in addition to completing courses for your major, you should leave college with broad exposure to a range of ideas and topics.

While “distribution requirements” is a model that helps create well-rounded graduates, many may experience the requirements as overly arbitrary and distracting.

A writer for Inside Higher Ed said this to highlight why it often disappoints students:

Step into St. Paul’s in London, and you feel simultaneously humbled and transcendent…  not unlike the college campus I mentioned. Too often, though, our general education curricula don’t match our architectural rhetoric, particularly when… students take two of this, two of that and two of the next thing. Rather than inviting students to feel capable, energized and part of something meaningful, we hand them a checklist that all but says, ‘You’re stupid. You need the basics. Again.’

(“It’s Time to Get Rid of Distribution Requirements.” Paul Hanstedt, Inside Higher Ed, February 9, 2020.)

With many students likely to experience a general ed curriculum as lacking coherence and relevance, it makes sense there’s some growing interest in alternatives.

It's also possible that the interest in open curriculum is a sign of the times, just as social ferment in the 1960s inspired Brown to try a new model.

In an information age with global challenges that point us to a more solutions-based economy and mindset, the conventional curriculum models may feel out of step, antiquated, paternalistic, or misaligned with 21st-century education and with young scholars’ most urgent learning goals and passions.

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Educational Benefits and Practical Advantages

For motivated students entering college with a strong sense of purpose and direction informed by personal introspection and an interest in self discovery, an open curriculum offers a welcome alternative, significant educational benefits, and some not trivial practical advantages as well.

[Our] open curriculum offers the freedom and flexibility to pursue your passions while discovering new interests. There are no general education requirements, so you can take the courses that most interest you and know your classmates have chosen them as well.

- -- Vassar College

Educational Benefits

Ownership: Navigating an open curriculum is likely to foster deeper engagement and ownership to the very degree it demands greater individual control, responsibility, and accountability.

Intrinsic Motivation: You’re more likely to be motivated and passionate about your courses and your learning when you’re freely directing your own academic path.

Creativity & Exploration: As you encounter new intellectual insights or interdisciplinary connections, you’ll be free to adjust your learning path and pursue those interests, potentially  unlocking doors you might otherwise overlook, doors to unexpected discovery, creativity, insight, or introspection.

A Community of Like-minded, Self-aware Scholars: Just as the open curriculum will impact and shape your learning journey, so will it impact the individuals around you, with consequences for the quality of discussion, debates, and dialogue happening around you — between classmates, between faculty members, between faculty and students.

Practical Advantages

As you navigate your first few years in college, having more freedom to choose courses will deliver some practical advantages as well:

  • Greater flexibility in building your course schedule as you juggle personal goals and preferences with various institutional limitations or constraints
  • More opportunities to learn from your own decision making and the consequences of your decisions
  • The freedom to take risks, engage your curiosity, pursue new lines of discovery or inquiry
  • Increased chances to engage the courses and/or professors you’re most interested in
  • Flexibility that makes it easier to complete a minor or a double major, or create your own cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary major

An open curriculum college will also free you from expending effort in courses that feel like arbitrary requirements and with little or no connection to the learning path you’re most passionate about.

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Exploring Open Curriculum Universities

When you feel more confident that an open curriculum is something that’s a good fit for your college journey, it’s time to explore colleges that stand out for this approach.

The good news is that you’ll find several very high quality universities and colleges worth considering, including one in the Ivy League. But, keep in mind that a narrow focus on open curriculum will also mean leaving many other outstanding schools off your list…

As you check out the list of schools below, you’ll also see that open curriculum models are not all created equal — at different institutions, open curriculum approaches are shaped further by unique academic goals and values.

Taking a closer look at diverse open curriculum universities and colleges should give you even greater clarity — around your own motivations and vision and to find the schools that best align with your interests.

Seven Leading Open Curriculum Colleges & Universities

1. Brown University

A pioneer of the open curriculum approach, Brown University is renowned for its flexible approach, allowing students to tailor their academic experiences without the pressure of fulfilling core requirements. Brown’s open curriculum model is grounded in deep respect for diversity and self discovery.

For students who want an Ivy-League educational experience at a large research university, but  without sacrificing the freedom and flexibility of an open curriculum, Brown University offers an outstanding pick.

Learn more about Brown University's Open Curriculum

Check out our complete Brown University Profile

2. Hampshire College

A small private liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, with under 1,000 undergraduates, Hampshire offers an even more radical model, where students not only choose their courses but also design their entire course of study, supported by faculty advisors.

At Hampshire, students don’t begin their academic journey by picking courses from a catalog. Instead, you work with an advisor to frame and define your own most compelling learning objectives and the principal areas of inquiry you want to pursue.

After defining the kind of urgent and compelling issue you want to put at the center of your education, you plan backwards, selecting and sequencing courses to achieve your goal.

Learn more about Hampshire's Open Curriculum

3. Vassar College

Vassar offers a small liberal arts setting, with only 2,000+ undergraduate students, and an open curriculum model touted for fostering exceptional freedom with no core classes and no distribution requirements. As a student at Vassar you — and your classmates — will be taking the courses you're most interested in, with flexibility to align courses with your passions and unfolding interests and discoveries.

The school offers more than 1,000 courses; advisors are available to guide your open curriculum decision making, and school leaders are advocates of a multidisciplinary approach.

Learn more about Vassar's Open Curriculum

4. Amherst College

Amherst is a top-ranking small liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst touts an open curriculum free from core courses and from distribution requirements, a structure making it easier to double major and still have time to explore other courses or disciplines. According to school leaders, “the open curriculum also allows professors to quickly adapt courses to new developments in their fields, and to the evolving interests of students.”

Amherst encourages students to take charge of their own intellectual growth, with close guidance from advisors, and develop a deeper sense of individual responsibility and initiative that will equip them to thrive in college and beyond.

Learn more about Amherst's Open Curriculum

5. Smith College

An all-female liberal arts college, Smith does offer what it calls “a totally open curriculum,” but a writing intensive is required for all entering first-year students, and the school’s academic ethos favors exposure to a wide range of disciplines.

Students are encouraged during their freshman and sophomore years to cultivate a broad liberal arts perspective across all disciplines. If distinct from existing majors, you may also petition to get approval for a personalized major.

Learn more about Smith's Open Curriculum

6. Wesleyan University

Another high-ranking, small, private liberal arts college with an open curriculum approach is Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

At Wesleyan, the open curriculum model aligns with the school’s broader academic ethos emphasizing the value of foundational critical thinking skills and lifelong learning.

With the freedom to sample liberally from across the curriculum, students are able to experience the surprise of unexpected ability in fields new to them and to make fruitful connections across subject areas that do not traditionally intersect. This can generate innovative depth of study and new ways of seeing…

From a curriculum standpoint, however, Wesleyan’s approach remains committed to retaining some foundational breadth requirements. While having significant freedom in choosing courses, all students must also take multiple courses across three broad discipline clusters.

Learn more about Wesleyan University's Open Curriculum

7. University of Rochester

Relatively unique in its approach to an open curriculum, Rochester is a private research university that offers students an extensive menu of predefined topical clusters (e.g. politics and math, power and inequality…) within three broad disciplinary tracks: humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences and engineering.

Instead of trying to select courses individually, students focus on identifying the cluster that aligns with their interests, or can create one of their own. Using this thematic navigation to map their next steps, students uncover which courses best fit their academic interests.

Learn more about University of Rochester's Open Curriculum

Diverse Open Curriculum Models

These institutions, among other open curriculum colleges, offer a glimpse into how open curriculum approaches are often adapted to the nuances of a school's educational philosophy.

The nuanced differences among schools are typically a reflection of a larger school vision or ethos that guides and shapes students’ learning experiences.

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Challenges and Considerations

Despite its advantages, the open curriculum model is not without challenges. The lack of structure can be overwhelming for some students, who may struggle with the vast array of choices and the responsibility of shaping their education.

Students also have to figure out their own academic priorities, such as whether to pursue well-rounded learning, indulge in experimental exploration, or commit to intense academic specialization.

Another drawback of an open curriculum model is that it allows so many novel course combinations. Some students may find this approach too open ended, presenting too many decision points. The fact is, even if you're likely to enjoy the freedom an open curriculum offers, when it’s time to graduate, you may end up disappointed by an educational experience that feels overly disjointed and incoherent if you don't possess the right clarity of purpose and direction.

Prospective students should thus consider their learning preferences and personal goals and interests before going all in on choosing an open curriculum college.

Consider your own aptitudes, and plan thoughtfully as you discern if an open curriculum fits your vision of college!

Seeking input from parents or other trusted adults and mentors, including  experienced college counselors, are great ways to get more insights as you consider all the angles.

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Application Process for Open Curriculum Colleges

Admissions officers at these institutions often seek to identify students who are independent thinkers, self-motivated, and clear about their educational aspirations. As you plan to apply to college, you’ll want to ensure you’re ready to make a strong and enthusiastic case for how you’ll navigate this freedom.

Remember, most open curriculum schools encourage exploration, so it’s not so much about having early certainty about your major and career; rather, it’s a matter of demonstrating intrinsic motivations for learning, being attuned to the source of those motivations, and being okay with having more responsibility for your own path through college.

For these reasons, you may also find that applying to open curriculum colleges requires supplemental essays or interviews. Be well prepared to share how you see your goals aligning with the school’s curriculum designs.

Alumni Impact

Alumni from open curriculum colleges often credit their unconventional educational experiences as giving them unique training and habits of mind. These graduates are known for their adaptability, innovative thinking, and interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. Their paths highlight how a self-directed and flexible education can lay the foundation for a dynamic and impactful career.

Nadirah Moreland, Brown’s class of ‘94, has been a social justice advocate and educator for twenty years. She credits Brown’s open curriculum with shaping her into a more effective, empathic educator, able to draw on her own introspective learning process to empower a new generation of students:

Brown trusts you in your learning. Because I was given the power to nurture my own learning, I feel like I am able to empower the young people I work with to nurture their own learning. Young people come in with their own questions, or ideas, or problems, and I enjoy helping them build upon their own understanding and creativity as well.

Like Brown University, Smith college is also known for its open curriculum.

If you’re wondering how that works for their students, you simply need to check out the roster of graduates participating in Smith’s annual Smith in the World event. You’ll quickly discover that recent Smith alumni are succeeding as change makers in diverse and consequential future-facing career paths, including Health Sciences, Law and Justice, Business Consulting, Biomedical Engineering, and more.

Not for everyone, an open curriculum can offer the right candidates a truly transformative educational experience and empower students to achieve excellence in a wide range of future professional pathways.

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Final Thoughts

Open curriculum colleges represent a bold and innovative approach to higher education, one that resonates with the aspirations of a new generation of learners. These institutions offer more than just academic flexibility; they offer a philosophy of education that empowers students to take ownership of their learning journey.

As the educational landscape continues to evolve, open curriculum colleges stand as a testament to the potential of a more personalized, creative, and interdisciplinary approach to higher education, one that not only offers personalized learning opportunities, but helps students more deeply reflect on their vocational passions and tailor their learning experiences accordingly.

If you’re intrigued by the possibilities of an open curriculum, your journey is just beginning. We invite you to reach out to our educational counselors for personalized guidance and more nuanced insights.

Whether you're considering applying to an open curriculum college or simply wish to explore your options, our team is here to support you every step of the way. We’re hoping you’ll book your free consultation today and let us know what questions you have about your next steps.

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