Top 10 Unusual United States Colleges


When you think of college, you probably picture huge classes, lots of papers and labs, and hanging out with friends in dorm rooms. What you don’t think of are high school dropouts, manual labor, or spending winters on boats in Antarctica. College doesn’t usually bring to mind meditating, consciousness-building, or milking cows. Yet there are people in the United States who can say those things are precisely what their college memories consist of. From Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service to the Enlightened Cheetahs of Naropa University, here are the top ten unusual United States colleges.

10. Evergreen State College


The fact that their mascot is a Geoduck named Speedy is not the only unusual thing about this college. Evergreen, located in Olympia, Washington, recognizes that students have changing interests and so allows each student to design their own Academic Plan. They can take whatever classes they are interested in at the moment and don’t even have to worry about fulfilling their major’s requirements since there are no prerequisites to complete a bachelor’s degree. Upperclassmen enjoy even more freedom. Each junior and senior Geoduck has an “individual learning contract” and creates their own program, including developing their own syllabi.

Although Evergreen uses the letter grade system, they rely more on the narrative evaluations that are given during a meeting with the professor and individual students at the end of a course. Students also must complete an evaluation on themselves. In addition to the professor and student evaluations, an Academic Statement also appears on students’ transcripts. Each student is required to write down their goals and interests upon arrival to the campus, and then revisit the essay every year until a final paper is submitted during senior year.

9. Alverno College


This all-womens Catholic school is located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is home to around 2,605 students. Similar to Evergreen State, Alverno College gives narrative evaluations to its students, but unlike the Geoducks, students at Alverno don’t receive letter grades at all. The school is based on what they call the “Eight Core Abilities,” which includes skills such as social interaction, effective citizenship, and aesthetic engagement. They believe in not only preparing their students for the real world, but treating them as if they are already in it from the start. As part of this no grades, real world approach, every student is required to complete an internship within the four years spent studying. Everyone is expected to devote 8-12 hours per week to the internship and also attend a corresponding seminar. The school offers a bachelor of arts, bachelor of music, bachelor of science, and bachelor of science in nursing for undergraduate study.

8. Antioch College


This Ohio liberal arts college seems to belong on the other side of the country in California. The entire campus runs on solar power and nearly 30% of the food served in their dining hall is grown by students on campus. They brag that their kitchen is equipped with no deep fryers and only buy locally grown and humanely raised produce and meat. To top it off, Antioch College has an unofficial mascot named Kale. In 2008, the school ran into financial difficulties and closed. As of 2011, they have reopened and are admitting around 100 students per year.

What makes Antioch unusual is that they are the only liberal arts college in the country to require students to complete off-campus work programs as part of their schooling. Called the Cooperative Program, or Co-op, students leave campus in alternating quarters to work full-time in paying jobs. At first, students remain close to the college, but as they near completion, employment opportunities can be international. The college promotes the saying “learning is doing” and believes that the best way to get educated is to experience the world first-hand, not by wasting four years in a classroom.  

7. Webb Institute


Webb Institute is located in Glen Cove, New York and is a place for students who know exactly what field they want to go into. It offers exactly one academic option: double majoring in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. The order and amount of courses each student takes during each semester is laid out for them upon acceptance. The Institute has a 7:1 faculty student ratio, which isn’t hard to do since there are only 80 undergraduates. Additionally, every student who attends receives a full tuition ride. Along with the prescribed classes and area of study, each student is required to participate in what Webb calls “Winter Work.” During January and February, students get out of the classroom and go to work as welders in shipyards, crews on boats, or designers in an office. Students travel all over for Winter Work and have been to places such as Antarctica, Finland, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. The current job placement rate after graduation is 100%.

6. St. John’s College


This college seems normal at first glance, until you factor in that there are no majors offered and every student is required to learn Ancient Greek. St. John’s has two campuses, one located in Santa Fe and the other in Annapolis, each home to around 500 undergraduates. Every ‘Johnnie,’ that is, student, is required to take four years of seminar, math, and language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of French), two years of a lab science and two years of music classes. Classes are small and professors are described as being more like tutors; with one or two to a class of 15, they are there more to help the students and less to teach. In their free time, students can join clubs such as the Alternate Euclid Proofs Group or exercise at the Igleheart Gymnasium.

5. Deep Springs College


Located on a cattle ranch in California’s High Desert, this college is anything but ordinary. In addition to literature, philosophy, and math, Deep Springs College tacks on manual labor when referring to a liberal arts education. There are less than 100 students, and all of them are expected to wake up as early as 4:30am to start the day’s work, which often consists of milking cows or repairing irrigation lines. However, that doesn’t sound as bad when you factor in that the cost of attendance is taken care of by the school, so students only have to worry about buying their books and travel. Students attend one to two 90 minute classes Monday through Friday that always take place between breakfast and lunch time. The afternoon is reserved for labor, and often so is the time between dinner and bed. Athletics are described as “midnight runs to the Upper Reservoir for polar bear swimming and a steamy sauna” and the college is self-governed by the students and staff. The highest degree offered at Deep Springs is an Associate’s Degree, but most students continue on to a four year university and over half finish their education with a PhD.

4. Bard College at Simon’s Rock


Bard College at Simon’s Rock, referred to as Simon’s Rock College by students and faculty, is like any other small, liberal arts college, except you don’t have to graduate high school to attend. The average age of incoming freshmen is 16, but the age range on campus is anywhere from 14 to 23. In fact, Woody Allen’s son started attending the college at age 11. Located in the small western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington, Simon’s Rock prides itself on being the only accredited, four year college in the nation to offer a bachelor’s degree program to students who didn’t graduate from high school–or perhaps attend high school at all.

The top-ranking school is home to around 350 students, has class sizes spanning from 1 to 20 students. Every student is required to double major, choosing one major from a list of established majors and designing the other one on their own. Students, faculty, and staff abide to a strict first name only basis and after spending a year there, it’s likely you’ll have a personal relationship with everyone from the provost to the dining hall staff.

3. Naropa University

Lincoln Building (front facade, 2007), Naropa University

Founded in 1974 by Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Naropa University focuses on artistic expression and contemplative practices. The school’s mascot is the Bodhi Cheetahs, which translates into awakened or enlightened Cheetahs. This small four-year college in Boulder, Colorado offers only 11 majors to its 380 undergrads: Contemplative Psychology, Creative Writing & Literature, Early Childhood Education, Environmental Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, Music, Peace Studies, Performance, Religious Studies, Traditional Eastern Arts, Visual Arts. During their first year, students have the opportunity to participate in LEAPYEAR, a program in which they travel in small groups to India or Latin America to study and do internships.

Once back on campus, students can fill their extra time by joining any of the numerous student organizations or extracurricular activities. Meditation is a common practice at Naropa and is used to “encourage and nurture a student’s authenticity and genuineness in order to be of service to others in a way that is open and nonjudgmental.” However, if the contemplative life is not for you, there is always the option of participating in clubs, such as the Sacred Sex Salon, Zazen Group, Eco-Dharma, Awakening Goddesses, or Mindful Improvisation Alliance. This unique college is not for everyone though: 38% of students transfer out, and only 39% graduate, which can sometimes take up to eight years.

2. Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service


The name itself gives away what is unusual about this college. Students interested specifically in the art and science of funeral service attend Gupton-Jones after graduating from high school. There they take all the normal general classes–history, English, math–but then move on to bigger and better courses, such as Principles of Embalming, Psychology of Funeral Service, and Mortuary Law/Ethics. In case students are dying for some hands-on experience, Gupton-Jones can connect them to funeral homes for internships and volunteer work. They can also participate in the Allied Trade Activities, which further adds to their funeral service education. Students are expected to abide to a dress code that they will later need to follow in their funeral profession. When dead tired of class work and school, students can get off campus and enjoy all there is to do in Atlanta. Upon the completion of all the required courses, students receive an Associate of Science Degree.

1. Maharishi University of Management


Despite its name, Maharishi University (MUM) is not a management school; rather, they provide a unique education centered on what they call Consciousness-Based learning. Located 60 miles west of the Mississippi River in Fairfield, Iowa, MUM is home to about 340 undergraduates and 1,100 graduate students. Students can major in a number of different fields such as Business, Literature, and Computer Science, but can only take one course per month. This is to minimize stress, maximize learning in each course, and make room for Transcendental Meditation. Since its founding over 40 years ago by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the university has been devoted to the development of consciousness. Students and faculty members are required to participate in meditation in order to develop their consciousness. Maharishi refers to this development as the missing element in today’s education and claims that practicing Transcendental Meditation leads to increased intelligence, improved academic performance, and improved health. The school calls itself a university of management, referring to the idea that all aspects of everyday life require management, from our careers to our health and relations with others.  

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