By Sarah Wright
Majoring in Nothing
It's not exactly accurate to say that schools allowing students to design their own courses of study offer a major in 'nothing,' but it is a much different model than that of a stereotypical college education. Rather than focusing on one specific area to the possible exclusion of others, colleges and universities that offer no-major degree programs allow students to define their own interests. Typically, students work with faculty advisors to determine a logical course of study that has some major driving force, even if that driving force isn't a focus on one particular discipline.
There are a few ways to approach a college education that requires no major. Some schools offer no majors as a matter of course, and everyone earns the same degree no matter what they study. This is typically only the case at smaller schools. Others allow students to enroll in a college of individualized study within the university system, giving students the option to transfer to a different college that will allow them to select a specific major. At some schools, you can select in interdisciplinary studies major (or something similarly named, like 'individualized study') to get a similar effect. You'll still be majoring in something, technically, but you won't have to narrow your focus to a single academic discipline.
A surprising number of large public universities allow students to develop their own courses of study under an interdisciplinary or individualized studies program. These examples should help you get a feel for how such a program might work.
A public university in Virginia, James Madison offers a major in individualized study under its adult degree program. This course of study includes a few core requirements, but many of these allow students to earn these credits outside of the classroom. This allows students to develop their own focus while earning credits.
One of several colleges at NYU, Gallatin describes itself as an 'experimental' school. Students at Gallatin take core requirements but are given a fair amount of freedom to focus on their specific interests. In addition to the arts and writing courses offered through the college, students can also take classes at other colleges in the university.
Located in Seattle, Washington, this public university is a great choice for students who think they might be interested in studying something off the beaten path. Students who are interested in the university's individualized studies major must come up with a proposal outlining their intentions in order to be accepted into the major program.
It's easy for smaller schools to build a culture around an academic program with no majors. Though not an exhaustive list of smaller colleges that allow students the freedom to design their own courses of study, these examples can give you a good idea of what you might expect from a school that emphasizes individual interests.
Sarah Lawrence is a private college with a total student population count that's typically around 1,300. If you're looking for a smaller college experience, this school, with a campus just a few hours from New York City, is a great choice. There are no majors at Sarah Lawrence for any student. Instead, students work with academic advisors known as 'dons' to determine which courses they should take throughout the years.
Vermont's private Marlboro College is an exceptionally small school, typically with fewer than 500 students enrolled (currently, the school lists its student body as 330 undergraduates strong). Students at Marlboro do choose a specific field of study, and may be required to fulfill a few requirements within that field, but the academic emphasis at this college is ultimately on the student's individual interests. This is a different approach to offering majors than is taken at most colleges.
With campuses in New Mexico and Maryland, this private school doesn't offer students a whole lot of individual freedom. The school offers no majors because every student takes the same interdisciplinary course of study based on 'the great books of the Western tradition.' St. Johns serves as yet another model for what higher education without majors can be like.
If you're thinking about switching to an individualized study program, think about whether you're ready to switch majors before making such a big change.