10 Most Unique Colleges In America (Including A College In California Located On A Cattle Farm)

By   |  March 7, 2011

The search for the perfect college can be overwhelming, but also a lot of fun. Finding schools that mesh with your personality, study habits, educational preparation, and expectations for adventure is satisfying in a holistic sort of way. These schools take that philosophy to the next level. From colleges that cater to students in a particular field like engineering to universities that promote personal enlightenment as much as academics, these are some of the most unique colleges in the U.S.

  1. Hampshire College: Located in Amherst, MA, Hampshire College allows its 1500 students to design their own curriculum. Favoring customized programs instead of “off-the-shelf” majors, Hampshire organizes students into three levels of study rather than categorizing students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors. Division I introduces students to basic principles and ideas in highly specialized classes, allowing them to experiment before settling into a concentration in Division II. Division III challenges students to complete an individual project and even teach and mentor other students while taking graduate-level courses.
  2. Evergreen State College: Collaborative learning is one of Evergreen State’s most important values, practiced through active seminars and group projects. Each year, students at the Washington State campuses work with faculty to design their own Academic Plan that satisfies their changing interests and involves team teaching initiatives that fuel collaboration between different discipline, or “academic pathways.” Programs can be designed in areas like energy systems, the humanities, management and business, visual and performing arts, mathematics, computer science, and more, and students must complete self-evaluations as part of their assessment.
  3. Alverno College: Milwaukee’s Alverno College fosters an “ability-based curriculum,” meaning that it foregoes standardized tests and exams in favor of personal assessment and measurement. Students strive to meet eight cornerstone concepts through their studies, preparing them to be effective contributors “in the worlds of work, family, and civic community.” These cornerstones are: communication, analysis, problem solving, valuing in decision making, social interaction, developing a global perspective, effective citizenship, and aesthetic engagement. Although traditional grades aren’t part of the Alverno College tradition, the school is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, plus many other discipline- and industry-specific agencies.
  4. St. John’s College: This Annapolis, MD-based university — there’s also a campus in Santa Fe — is famous for ditching traditional classes, textbooks and teaching styles. Professors act more like tutors, guiding students as they read the classics from disciplines like literature, mathematics, music, laboratory sciences, philosophy and political science — what’s called the school’s “great books” curriculum. There are no majors; instead, all students take four years of language — Ancient Greek and French — mathematics, and interdisciplinary study; three years of a laboratory science; one year of music; two elective discussions; and a school-wide weekly lecture. “Thoughtful conversation” is valued as a key ingredient to producing educated, well-rounded graduates.
  5. Naropa University: This Buddhist-inspired university located in Boulder, CO, marries the philosophies and academic traditions of Classical Greece and Classical India, promoting East-meets-West values and perspectives. In addition to pursuing four-year undergraduate degrees and graduate programs, students are encouraged to explore their own purpose in the world. The school offers 11 majors total, including Contemplative Psychology, Peace Studies, Traditional Eastern Arts, Environmental Studies, Music, Early Childhood Education, and Writing and Literature. Contemplative education is another mission of the university, requiring students to take meditation and pursue similar mind-awakening practices like t’ai-chi ch’uan and yoga.
  6. Olin College: Officially named Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, this school, located in Needham, MA, opened in 2002 and enrolls just over 300 students, total. Majors are offered in electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and general engineering, and it is well-ranked by the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review for rigorous academics and high-quality engineering programs. Designed to promote innovation and 21st-century thinking, the curriculum combines science and engineering fundamentals with entrepreneurship and the liberal arts, giving students the chance to start experimenting and collaborating from their first year.
  7. Berea College: Proudly known as the greenest school in Kentucky, Berea College was also founded in 1855 as the first interracial and coed school in the South. Most students are from the surrounding Appalachia region and who have demonstrated the potential for academic success but who may not have been able to afford college without Berea’s no-tuition policy. While the cost of education per student is estimated at $23,000 per year, students trade their free tuition for 10 hours of work per week in campus and service jobs.
  8. New College of Florida: This “public honors college for the liberal arts” is located in Sarasota, FL, and pushes students to direct their own educational programs. There are over 30 concentrations to choose courses from, and students are encouraged to take a broad range of classes to satisfy their interests. Independent Reading Projects are offered each semester, giving students the chance to study one-on-one with a professor or in small groups and focus on research, community involvement or even study abroad. “Narrative evaluations” replace grades, as professors assess projects and student performance in coursework and tutorials.
  9. Deep Springs College: Only three long-term professors are employed by Deep Springs College, all all-male alternative college on a cattle-ranch and alfalfa farm in eastern California. Founded in 1917 on three main values — academics, labor and self-governance — 26 students are selected to attend for two years on a full scholarship, which the college estimates at over $50,000 per year. The three professors are from three different fields and live next to the dorms, also tutoring their students in areas like knitting, stargazing and bread making. All students must also practice public speaking, and they usually attend well-recognized four-year colleges after graduating.
  10. Oberlin College: Ohio’s Oberlin College is a well-respected liberal arts college and music conservatory that’s known as the first American university to award bachelor’s degrees to women studying in a coed environment. The highly selective school includes a Winter Term — four weeks in January — in which normal courses are suspended in favor of self-directed education. Students can choose courses or direct one of their own, by themselves or with other students. Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Project also allows students from any major to practice entrepreneurship skills, including concept development and business development. The ExCo: Experimental College program is a separate department that lets students, faculty and the public teach courses not offered by the university’s other departments.

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4 Comments on “10 Most Unique Colleges In America (Including A College In California Located On A Cattle Farm)”  (RSS)

  1. And Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona for the Liberal Arts, the Environment and Social Justice. Dedicated to experential learning, it has a dedicated faculty and unique student body.

  2. Another school I would add to this list would be Warren Wilson in North Carolina. While it is certainly not for everyone, students who attend school there are passionate about the education they are receiving.

  3. Or how about Bard College at Simon’s Rock? A college where the majority of the students haven’t finished high school, because they were ready to go to college after the 10 or 11th grades, and in some cases the 9th grade.


  4. What about Green Mountain College….Check it out:

    Green Mountain College prepares students for productive, caring, and fulfilling lives by taking the environment as the unifying theme underlying its academic and co-curricular programs. This innovative interdisciplinary approach to liberal arts education is grounded in the institution’s strong tradition of effective teaching and mentoring, and is complemented by a diversity of community-oriented campus life opportunities.

    Through a wide range of liberal arts and career-focused majors, the college fosters the ideals of environmental responsibility, public service, global understanding, and lifelong intellectual, physical, and spiritual development.

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