The 9 Most Flexible Colleges in the Country

Have you ever sat through an Introduction to Statistics lecture in an auditorium replete with three hundred groggy college students, daydreaming about the incredibly fascinating course you would have enrolled in, had it not been for your university’s math requirement? I’ve sure been there, picturing my hypothetical “Anthropology of Food” class in the midst of a riveting analysis of the cultural implications of crème brûlée. Meanwhile—back in reality—the ant-sized professor stands far away in the front of the auditorium, mumbling something or other about hypothesis testing.  

Clearly, I am not a mathematically-oriented person (although cuisine is not exactly my forte either), but whichever your field of expertise, you can probably identify with the experience of being in a class that has absolutely no relation to your academic goals or interests.

That is, unless you are enrolled in one of those schools where the administration actually trusts that their students will have the capacity to design their own programs of study; where, if there are certain graduation requirements, these extend no farther than a writing requirement and one course in the humanities, sciences, and mathematics—an interesting, engaging course that will somehow relate to your field and that doesn’t include an “Introduction to” anything lecture; and where the main objective of the school is to cultivate curious students who will push the boundaries between academic disciplines.

Many of us associate the term “flexibility” with the mind-blowing physical abilities of Olympic gymnasts and not at all with our school’s academic curriculum. But at these nine colleges and universities, this term actually serves as the core of their values:

1. Brown University
Perhaps the most renowned of the “flexible” schools (partly thanks to Emma Watson, aka Hermione Granger), Brown has absolutely no curriculum requirements (aside from a writing requirement). Upon arriving at the Providence, Rhode Island campus, students have the liberty to discern for themselves between the courses that interest them and those that don’t.


  • The one general requirement enforced at Brown is the completion of a Writing Course.
  • Each student must fulfill the requirements for his or her chosen concentration.
  • In addition, when they declare their concentration, students must describe what writing they have completed at Brown and the writing they intend to do in the concentration.
  • Students are “encouraged” to write an independent research paper, a seminar paper, or an honors thesis in the concentration.

2. Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon offers programs that are specifically tailored for students who are interested in more than one academic arena. One such program is the BXA Intercollege Degree Programs, which encompasses the Bachelor of Humanities and Arts, the Bachelor of Science and Arts, and the Bachelor of Computer Science and Arts programs. 

Stephanie Murray, the Academic Advisor for BXA, says the students in the programs “make me tired to look at them sometimes; they’re just so excited and involved in what they are doing.” Can’t you just picture Glee’s Rachel Berry ambitiously strutting down the BXA halls?

One of BXA’s enthusiastic students, Julie Mallis is pursuing degrees in Art and Anthropology. “I always knew I wanted to do something with art, and I wanted to do something with people,” she says. “You have to really want to be in the [BXA] program in order to get into it, so right off the bat, I was taking all the classes I wanted to be taking—and they fit directly with my interests.”

As to how she feels about having the ability to follow her own academic goals, Julie says: “I haven't had to ‘waste time’ doing things I am not interested in doing. Having this type of freedom to really study two separate areas affects each piece of work I make and strengthens them.” “I am not following some formula, but really going with my gut,” she says. Props to her!


  • Each of the BXA programs has its unique set of curriculum requirements based upon the academic inclinations of its students. The course requirements range from languages and social sciences to mathematics and science.
  • Students are also required to complete a freshman research seminar, a senior capstone project, and a computing skills workshop.
  • Each student must choose a fine arts concentration from one of the five schools within the College of Fine Arts: Architecture, Art, Design, Drama, or Music.
  • In addition, students must pursue another concentration within their other chosen discipline (Humanities, Science, or Computer Science).

3. Amherst College

Students at Amherst are given the liberty to design their own programs of study, as the school has an open curriculum and no core or general education requirements. In addition, Amherst offers the Independent Scholar Program for students who don’t wish to follow the traditional path of choosing a major. Available to students who are nominated for the program by a member of the faculty, Independent Scholars construct their program of study with the help of a tutor.


  • During their freshman year, Amherst students must complete a First-Year Seminar.
  • Each student must fulfill the requirements for his or her chosen major.

4. NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study
Did you know that there are more than ten schools and colleges at New York University? Yet with only 1200 undergraduate students, Gallatin is the most flexible of them all. Students at the Gallatin School design their own programs of study in accordance with their academic and intellectual interests. There are no defined majors or concentrations at Gallatin—it is each student’s responsibility to use his or her own creativity and intellect to construct an exciting and interesting curriculum.

According to Lauren Kaminsky, Director of Academic and Student Affairs at Gallatin, the school is “interdisciplinary, not multidisciplinary. Students are encouraged to push the envelope by asking what happens at the point where different fields intersect.”

“Not only do Gallatin students have this incredibly mind-blowing [academic] freedom, but they can also invent things and create opportunities,” says Kaminsky. “When you teach at Gallatin,” she says, “it’s really palpable that [the students] are there because they want to be there and because they’re very passionate about what they’re doing. It changes the tone in the room.”


  • Gallatin students must design an academic concentration based on their interests, usually combining work in two or more academic disciplines and taking courses in several departments at NYU.
  • Each student must complete at least 32 credits in liberal arts courses in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics or science, and expository writing, either in Gallatin or in any other of the NYU schools.
  • Students must complete the Senior Colloquium, an “oral examination” in which each student reflects on her concentration and talks about what she has learned from her studies at Gallatin.

5. Hamilton College
Located in the village of Clinton, NY, Hamilton College is a small liberal arts school that prides itself on its legacy of educating students to become successful writers and free thinkers. There are no distribution or curriculum requirements at Hamilton. With the help of an advisor, students at Hamilton pursue their own academic interests and goals.


  • Hamilton “encourages” all students to complete at least four Proseminars, which focus on writing, speaking and discussion.
  • In addition, students must pass at least three writing courses.
  • Beginning with the Class of 2014, every student must complete one “quantitative and symbolic reasoning” course.
  • Each student must choose a concentration and complete the requirements for it in order to graduate.

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: