Pursue a College Degree Via Alternative Study Methods

Flexible degree programs and the “flipped classroom” are growing in popularity on college campuses.

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Students can benefit from degree programs that award credit for outside knowledge or allow for flexible course selection.
Students can benefit from degree programs that award credit for outside knowledge or allow for flexible course selection.

There is a revolution underway in higher education. Previously, getting a college degree implied that you had to attend a series of courses and choose one major out of a limited selection. Now, however, many colleges are offering greater flexibility in obtaining a degree.

Options range from degrees that confer credit for life experience and independent study, to unique degree programs that allow a student to choose a unique set of courses that perfectly fits their interests, to the so-called "flipped classroom" model of instruction. 

[Find alternatives to traditional four-year college degrees.] 

1. Flexible degree programs: The University of Wisconsin system is one of the pioneers in providing a means of assessing educations obtained outside of a traditional college classroom, such as through massive open online courses, which are increasingly popular among students. The Flexible Option, offered by certain institutions with the university system, relies on rigorous exams that test the knowledge of its participants, and those who pass are considered to have gained credits toward completing a degree

Through flexible degree programs like this, students now have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they have learned outside the classroom, such as from MOOCs, toward their traditional schooling and move further along in their education. For example, a student could complete a MOOC hosted by Stanford University on his or her own time, later earning credit toward a degree at UW—Madison once passing a test. 

Using MOOCs in conjunction with these types of programs may be one of the best methods for a student to get a nontraditional, but still well-rounded, education that they find truly fulfilling. 

The downside of flexible degrees is that they may or may not be received well by prospective employers. If you are considering a flexible degree program, look for one affiliated with a well-established and prestigious school to help counterbalance the novelty of the degree itself. 

[Get tips on how you can learn for free with MOOCs.] 

2. Integrated studies: These programs offer another creative option for pursuing a college degree. Unlike traditional majors where students choose from a defined list of courses, students in an integrated studies program stitch together courses around a theme that appeals to them. 

Statistics, sociology and neurobiology classes, for example, might be selected by a student interested in the biological origins of social behavior. Numerous colleges have followed this model since its inception. 

The key to finding a good program is to identify those that require significant faculty oversight. Infinite possibility, after all, carries a risk of paralysis in the face of too many choices. 

Additionally, it is important to remember that the goal of attending a university is to learn from experts. Working closely with a knowledgeable adviser can make all the difference between a focused, creative course of study and a very expensive waste of time. Remember that at some point, you will need to be able to coherently explain your nontraditional degree to prospective employers. 

[Get answers to common questions from nontraditional students.] 

3. Flipped classrooms: Another innovation in teaching seeks not to revolutionize the way degrees are awarded, but rather to change the way learning occurs in the classroom itself.

In the "flipped classroom" model, students watch instructional videos as homework and focus on related assignments or discussion projects while in the classroom. They are referred to as "flipped" because they reverse the routine order of classroom lecture followed by independently completed homework. 

The primary advantage to this approach is the emphasis on problem-solving with an instructor present, as the material covered can thus be more challenging and useful since the professor is nearby to help answer questions. In contrast, lecture portions of classes are rarely participatory. 

Flipped classrooms are still a relatively new concept, but some colleges and universities are beginning to implement pilot programs. If you are the type of student who learns best hands-on, it may be worth your while to investigate which schools are currently offering this novel approach. 

The three alternative programs outlined above are just the beginning of this revolution in higher education. When evaluating any college program, you must focus on the real educational value being offered and not just the novelty value. Old-fashioned college campuses won't be going away any time soon. 

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

Corrected 1/15/14: A previous version of this post misstated where the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option is offered.