The Best Colleges with an Open Curriculum
The vast majority of American colleges have extensive “core curriculum” and “distributional requirements” that dictate what specific courses and/or general categories of courses all undergraduates must complete in order to graduate. Many schools require a scripted progression through core courses including foreign language, the humanities, math and science, the social science, etc. As such, students often have very few elective spots in their course schedule and many do not have the ability to double-major without remaining at the university for longer than four years.
On the other hand, there are a select number of schools, primarily of the liberal arts variety, that offer undergraduate students an incredible degree of curricular flexibility or even a fully open curriculum. We explore 12 institutions where undergrads have the greatest degree of agency in planning their educational experience. In addition to a brief overview of the open nature of the curriculum, you also find links to learn more about each college’s curricular requirements.
Note: a few schools on this list do not have a fully “open” curriculum, but they are still among the most flexible in the country.
“At Brown, our students develop a personalized course of study — they have greater freedom to study what they choose and the flexibility to discover what they love…Brown’s distinctive approach asks much of students — as the architect of their own education, Brown students are responsible for their own intellectual and creative development. Most undergraduates sample courses in a range of subjects before diving into one of 80-plus academic concentrations for in-depth, focused study.”
“Our curriculum offers flexibility and independence. It rewards initiative. Students take full responsibility for their intellectual growth, in the same way they will take responsibility for important choices later in life. Many students decide to double major. With no core requirements, they are able to choose two majors and still have enough time to explore other disciplines. They are also able to consider a broader range of study abroad programs.”
“Hamilton is one of the few U.S. colleges with an open curriculum, which means you’ll have the freedom to choose courses that reflect your interests, while still fulfilling the faculty’s expectation that you study broadly across the liberal arts.”
“With the Rochester Curriculum, undergraduate students in Arts, Sciences & Engineering build their own program of study. There are no general education requirements and no traditional ‘core’ curriculum.”
“Paired with our uniquely engaging Block Plan structure, our curriculum creates a rich foundation for unearthing passions and discovering the world. You’ll dig in, you’ll learn how to learn. With our rigorous but broad requirements, you’ll have both ample independence and guidance during your four years here. It excites us that there’s no one path to follow and it’s safe to say that no semester at Colorado College will bore you.”
“When students direct their own education in consultation with intensively engaged faculty advisors, they learn to think independently, explore questions from multiple points of view, and develop habits of critical thinking that are hallmarks of a liberal education. Wesleyan upholds the principle that student choice fosters the drive to explore freely and seek connections across courses, generating the intellectual excitement that can fuel liberal education as a lifelong pursuit. 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.”
“The individually advised curriculum allows you to design your own academic journey…With just one required class, more than 500 course offerings, and no general education requirements or core curriculum, you can explore your interests through all their twists and turns.”
“While there are no required courses at Williams, all students take at least three in arts and humanities, three in social sciences, and three in science and mathematics. All students also take at least two writing-intensive courses and one course to improve their ability to reason mathematically and abstractly. And while Williams has no formal language requirement, we do require that all students explore diversity by taking at least one course that examines how groups, cultures, and societies interact with, and challenge, one another.”
“As a first-year student, you will complete at least one writing-intensive course, but there are no other required courses beyond those for your major. A faculty adviser will work with you to customize your educational plan according to your interests.”
“Major requirements are flexible and, with approval of the chair of the faculty, can be modified to fit the program interests of individual students. Liberal provisions are made for the individual student, either as a major or as a non-major, to choose electives from an extensive list of special interest courses.”
“The Trinity curriculum sets some basic directions for students through general education requirements, while offering each individual the flexibility to experiment, to deepen old interests and develop new ones, and to acquire specialized training in a major field.”
“The Vassar curriculum has always been characterized by boldness, breadth, and flexibility. Vassar was among the first colleges to offer courses in drama, psychology, and Russian, the first to offer an undergraduate degree in cognitive science, and among the first to experiment with interdepartmental courses in the early 20th century…Today, the curriculum is broader, richer, and more varied than ever, with an increasing emphasis on a multidisciplinary approach to intellectual inquiry.”
We hope you found our list of schools with the most open/flexible curriculum to be helpful in your college search. You can also visit our Dataverse to view an assessment of the curricular flexibility at 150 top colleges and universities.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).