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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 training.

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-oriented—they 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 Aesthetics).”

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 program option.”

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: Resources:

External 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.

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