The 9 Most Flexible Colleges in the Country

6. University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Students at UMass-Amherst have the opportunity to enroll in the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program, tailored to those who wish to explore particular academic subjects that are not offered within a department’s curriculum.
Madeleine Guthrie Ashton, a sophomore at UMass-Amherst who plans to major in Fashion Design and Advertising, is in the process of applying to the BDIC program for the spring semester. “[The program] has really helped me to focus on what I want to do, and there is so much freedom to really find whatever it is that I want to do,” says Madeleine. “It was really frustrating when I decided to study fashion and I realized that it was not offered as a major. However, it came as a relief when I saw that I actually could do what I want to do,” she says.

“I would definitely recommend this program to other people,” says Madeleine. “For me it is a great way to do what I want and still be a part of my sorority and be able to stay on the UMass campus,” she says.


  • Students in BDIC must submit a formal concentration proposal, written during the Proposal Writing Class that is required for students in the program.
  • Each student must complete at least twelve related upper-division courses in his or her area of concentration. Non-classroom experiences such as internships and independent studies may be accepted for credit.
  • Students must take courses from two or more departments each semester.
  • During their final semester in BDIC, each student must submit a six-page Senior Summary and a one-page Abstract.

7. Smith College
A small all-female liberal arts school in Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College has no distribution requirements for graduation. Instead, students design their own curriculum with the help of an advisor, ensuring that the courses they take will meet the requirements for their major of choice. In addition to the major, students may also choose to pursue a minor or concentration. Smith offers concentrations in diverse fields such as Biomathematical Sciences, Museums, Poetry, and the Tomb Raider-worthy Archives concentration.




  • Students must fulfill all the requirements for their major of choice.
  • Each student must take at least 64 credits outside the department or program of her major.

8. University of Rochester 
“The open curriculum was the reason I came to Rochester—I’m from California, so it was a pretty strong motivating factor,” says Margaret Close, a Psychology major with a minor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “Choosing to take Psychology classes early on has allowed me to develop a very focused area of study in my time here,” she says. “I was able to start developing my own research ideas my junior year, and as a senior I am conducting a year-long thesis examining my own area of interest: the effects of mothers’ mental health on heart rate and physiological development in infants,” says Margaret.

“Students who want this kind of freedom, in the main, are those who are attracted to the University,” says Suzanne O’Brien, Associate Dean of The College at the University of Rochester. “A student who wants to be told what course to take will probably not choose to come here,” she says.

Margaret agrees with O’Brien, emphasizing that programs with so much flexibility are not for everyone. “As you can probably tell, I love the open curriculum—I have had no problems with it at all,” she says. “I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, though. I think schools with few academic restrictions work best for students who are independently driven and already know their own interests. Not everybody knows what they want to study when they come to college, and that's fine too. Schools with more structured requirements can be helpful in those cases because required courses can help direct students’ interests.”


  • Students at the University of Rochester must fulfill a writing requirement.
  • Each student chooses his or her major in any discipline within one of the three divisions of the University: the humanities, the social sciences, or natural science and engineering.
  • Students must complete at least one cluster (a set of three related courses) in each of the two divisions outside of their majors.

9. Vassar College
Because there aren’t enough liberal arts schools with open curricula on this list, Vassar is yet another that falls into the “flexible” colleges category. Although there are some curricular requirements at Vassar, these are very few and unobtrusive to a student’s academic goals and interests.


  • Each student must complete the First-Year Writing Seminar.
  • Students must also fulfill the quantitative course requirement.
  • The third (and last) curricular requirement is the foreign language requirement.
  • Students must fulfill the specific requirements for their majors.
  • Vassar students can complete a major through a concentration in a department, an interdepartmental or a multidisciplinary program, or through a self-designed course of study in the independent program.

Anyone thinking of transferring? Now sound off in the Comments section: do you think colleges should have more structured curricula, or is more freedom better for students?

Stephanie Murray, Academic Advisor, Carnegie Mellon BXA Intercollege Degree Programs
Julie Mallis, Carnegie Mellon student
Carnegie Mellon website:
Lauren Kaminsky, Director of Academic and Student Affairs, NYU Gallatin SchoolGallatin School website:
Caroline Bagby, UMass-Amherst student
Madeline Guthrie Ashton, UMass-Amherst student
UMass-Amherst website:
Suzanne O’Brien, Associate Dean of The College, University of Rochester
Margaret Close, University of Rochester student
University of Rochester website:
Brown website:
Amherst website:
Smith website:
Hamilton website: