Self-Designed Degrees: Are They for You?
A growing number of colleges provide self-directed programs
by Jerry Flattum
Wouldn't it be great to design your own career path? Not to deter the
inquisitive adult learner, but self-directed degree programs are not easy.
They require a healthy dose of direction, planning, strategy, independent
study and usually strong writing ability. And since many self-designed
programs revolve around experiential learning, an adult's life or experience
on the job becomes crucial in the translation to college credit.
Just what exactly is a self-designed degree? For universities, basically it
is a B.A. or B.S. degree with a specialized or interdisciplinary
area of study. However, at smaller institutions such
as a community college,
a formal degree might not be what is needed. According
to Mary Aldrich, Coordinator for Marketing and Public
Relations at the American Association of Community Colleges,
not everyone has a need for a traditional four-year
degree. In these cases, the key may be in retraining
to capitalize on the demand for new technological skills,
or to receive a certificate for highly specialized vocational
Because of it's flexibility and concentration, the self-designed degree
is tailored made for the older student. Unlike younger students who change
their majors with each new course, adult students are usually highly goal-orientedthey
are on an educational mission. Some may be looking for life-enhancement
courses, or to complete something they started years ago. Others want
to improve their marketability. Observes Aldrich, We all know in
the computer industry there is a severe shortage of qualified workers.
Companies scouting for employees are not as interested in a person who
has a general bachelor's degree as they are in the person who is well-versed
in specific applications. Specialized programs offer students a way to
either begin or accentuate such career paths. Adults particularly value
these opportunities when they may already have job experience or families
to support, and need to maximize convenience.
Highly integral to such programs is extensive academic advisement. For both
universities and community colleges, a counselor plays an important role
in helping students define their goals, direct their choice of courses,
and to lay out a road map to goal attainment.
Added flexibility is a bonus. Because adult learners generally have commitments
beyond the act of obtaining a degree (jobs and family responsibilities),
most courses take place in the evenings and on Saturdays. The programs
also allow the adult learner the chance to skip a semester should life
demand their attention elsewhere.
Bridget Puzon, Senior Editor for the Association of American Colleges and Universities,
has this to say about self-designed degrees:
They may have different names, but colleges developed self-designed majors
in the late 60s and 70s to accommodate the interests undergraduates had
for areas of study that either didn't fit in the disciplinary majors of
departments, or even in the existing interdisciplinary majors. Until some
areas of study grew into regular majors, students put together, with the
help of an advisor, courses and seminars from several departments that
had components for a full-scale study. Students still create their own
majors under the rubric established by the particular college, e.g. thematic
(Ideas of Revolution in the Twentieth Century) or historical (Medieval
In most cases a self designed degree is really a designed major within an overall
degree program. Said Puzon, Most programs across the country are
built on an advising process that plans with the student according to
his/her capacities, interests, and preparation. If my impression is correct,
that means an almost totally self-designed option, along with a traditional
The titles for many of the degrees are as innovative and varied as the students
who design them. A short list might include Popular Music with a focus
on Songwriting, Integrative Studies in Film, Children's
Health, Early Christianity, International Development
with an emphasis on China, Cybernetics, Golf Course Architecture
and so on.
Industry is also working with colleges in developing these programs. For example,
a program at Macomb College and Delta College in Michigan is working in
tandem with auto giants such as GM. Aldrich says that this is a growing
trend. In a number of cases organizations send their employees to
a community college to receive computer training or training on budgeting
or personnel management, she said.
Just about any kind of learning activity is convertible to college credit in
demonstrating prior and new learning, from work-related training to community
service, from internships to international travel and study. The freedom
lies in electives, independent projects and concentrations. But this can
be tricky, since many advanced courses require prerequisite courses. Independent
projects must demonstrate the same learning as what might be equivalent
to a course or one that would be taught on the same subject. Requirements
for entry also vary from college to college but usually include former
transcripts, application, statement on interests and goals, SAT scores
and most likely demonstrated writing ability.
Each college and university has their own subtle differences in terms of what
you can get away with and what you can't. For instance, a logic course
may substitute for a math requirement. A healthy smattering of communications,
culture and international studies courses might fulfill any language requirement.
Many programs will not even admit a student into a self-designed program
until they have already satisfied a minimum number of requirements.
Colleges that focus exclusively on self-designed degree programs:
College at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul/Minneapolis,
Metropolitan State University is a nationally recognized
pioneer in individualized studies, and focuses exclusively
on Individualized Bachelor of Arts degrees.
College, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Sarah Lawrence, Bronxville,
of Maine at Presque.
University of Minnesota's Program for Individualized Learning.
Degrees in the Information Age : Legitimate Choices (American Council
on Education/Oryx Press Series on Higher Education) .
There has been tremendous growth in the number of college and university
degree programs designed specifically for adults who have family and career
responsibilities. Telecommunications and computer technologies have even
made it possible to earn some degrees without ever leaving home or work.
As an added advantage, many of these external degree programs offer college
credit for prior learning and work experience. External
Degrees in the Information Age
is a reliable and comprehensive guide designed to help adults make
informed decisions about pursuing a postsecondary degree, and to help
them avoid "diploma mills." The book also describes 140 legitimately
accredited external degree programs now in operation.
Jerry Flattum is a freelance writer and is currently enrolled in the
Masters of Liberal Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. He is currently living in Phoenix and plans to complete his master's via distance learning.