Newly Customized Majors Suit Students With Passions All Their Own

AJ Mast for The Chronicle

Bridget A. Flynn, a junior at Indiana U. at Bloomington, entered college caring deeply about animal rights. Her individualized major, in environmental ethics, combines politics, ethics, and science in a study of environmental sustainability.
September 05, 2010

Last year professors at Drexel University took several high-achieving students out to lunch and asked them how to recruit more students like themselves. Their answer was simple: Give us the power to shape our own education, and we will come.

A self-designed major would make the university more attractive to prospective students, they said. Most added that they would have strongly considered such a major if it were available, according to Dave B. Jones, dean of Drexel's Pennoni Honors College.

The student feedback helped persuade the university's Faculty Senate to support a self-designed major. Drexel began recruiting students for the program in August.

The new offering is meant to attract, and retain, the best and brightest students. "Often you read about someone who is very successful, and you hear they dropped out of school," Mr. Jones says. "There's a kind of kid that gets bored with a rigid core curriculum, so we want to design a program where a really smart person won't feel hamstrung."

Self-designed majors generally allow students to choose which courses count toward their majors. "This is the kind of major that could have kept a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in college," the dean says.

A Common Concern

Drexel is not the only institution acknowledging that the standard curriculum is a bad fit for some students. Individualized majors began appearing in the 1960s and 70s, and now more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States offer such majors. It wasn't until 2009, though, that Indiana University at Bloomington held the first national conference on best practices for individualized majors—and the conference was so popular that Bloomington decided to have it again this spring.

At the conference, speakers addressed the logistical challenges faced by individualized-major programs, which frequently have to rely on willing participants from multiple departments in a university.

Although they are often difficult to administer, the programs fulfill a need increasingly felt by nontraditional students and their educators alike, says Margaret A. Lamb, one of the organizers of the conference, who is director of the University of Connecticut's individualized-major program and senior associate director of honors and enrichment programs there.

"If universities weren't organized around particular units or departments, individualized majors wouldn't be needed," she says. "These majors are designed to help students cross the boundaries that have been created."

Raymond W. Hedin, another of the conference organizers, agrees. An English professor who is a former director of Bloomington's individualized-major program, he says giving students the freedom to construct their own course of study, in fields such as speechwriting and comparative ideologies, is one way of serving those who would otherwise be left behind.

Students with quirky academic interests might be forced into a particular discipline at another college, but at Bloomington, he says, they can pursue final projects that cater to their own interests. They may write a novel or put on a play rather than write a thesis paper, providing them with academic work they enjoy, Mr. Hedin says.

"I think students do best when they are studying what they really care about," he says. "I had a number of students who told me they would have left college if they had not had an individualized major."

'Not for the Faint of Heart'

Customized majors enhance students' academic and professional prospects, say the programs' supporters.

Because such programs typically involve a rigorous application process, the students are required to demonstrate an unusual amount of determination, Ms. Lamb argues. "The admission process for the individualized major is not for the faint of heart. Students don't do an individualized major on a whim, unless they can sustain it with hard work."

When students design their own curriculum, they are doing work that faculty members usually do for them, which means they have to invest a large amount of time and energy into their education, says Mr. Hedin. But they are easily isolated, he warns, since they are intensely involved in a personal project and do not study their subject along with a cohort.

As a result, such majors are not for everyone, Mr. Hedin concedes. But the effort that students put into such programs often pays off, he says. Many employers are impressed by students' individualized majors and do not consider them "impractical," as is commonly believed, he says.

For example, some employers might be more intrigued by the NYU student who majored in "Prelaw, Politics, and Critical Race Theory" than in one who majored in history.

Trudy G. Steinfeld, who runs New York University's Wasserman Center for Career Development, says undergraduates in NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study generally fare better in the job market than do classmates with traditional majors. An individualized course of study allows students to market themselves as "entrepreneurs and self-starters," she says.

"If you have a company or nonprofit, you are looking for employees who have an interesting collection of skills and who can shift gears quickly between tasks, and individualized majors often fit the bill," Ms. Steinfeld says. "Particularly in a tough economy, employers are trying to make sure that they get a bang for their buck, and they want versatile employees."

Individualized majors are also more likely to win prestigious fellowships and get admitted to graduate schools, according to officials at several institutions.

Last year four of NYU's 11 Fulbright scholarship winners were Gallatin students or alumni, Ms. Steinfeld notes, even though students at the school make up only about 6 percent of the university's full-time undergraduates.

Other institutions cite similar statistics. For example, although less than 2 percent of Duke University's students have individualized majors, five of them have been among the 13 Rhodes scholars there in the last 15 years, says Norman C. Keul, associate dean of Duke's Trinity College.

What's more, he says, individualized majors have consistently graduated with honors at higher rates than other students at Duke. Last year seven of the 10 graduating seniors in the program were awarded degrees with distinction.

Bloomington officials see the same patterns. During his time as director of the individualized-major program, Mr. Hedin says, he saw disproportionate numbers of individualized majors named as Phi Beta Kappas. His students were unusually successful graduate-school applicants as well, he adds.

The assistant director of the program, Paul N. Aarstad, agrees. "For a student that is distinguished in terms of grades, an individualized major is a benefit when applying to graduate schools," he says, "because it demonstrates that the student takes initiative and has done things to shape their education."

Pursuing a Passion

Students with individualized majors say their personalized curricula gave them the autonomy they needed to pursue unconventional interests.

Bridget A. Flynn, a junior at Bloomington, says her major in "environmental ethics" has allowed her to look at the issue of sustainability in fresh and innovative ways. Her study of politics, ethics, and science has uniquely prepared her to be an environmental activist, she says.

Had she not created her own major, she would have had to choose between two disciplines she adores, environmental science and philosophy, which would not have been as fulfilling for her, Ms. Flynn says.

She entered college with a passion for animal rights. At 16 she had watched a documentary about slaughterhouses, and "the horror" of what she had seen made her committed to working for change, she says. "It made me really interested in how humans are starting to destroy the natural world. I wanted to make people aware of the destruction that we are causing and help them to become conscious consumers."

Isaac S. Rowlett, an NYU graduate, also says he chose his major to pursue an academic passion. His lifelong friendship with a Holocaust survivor had made him keenly interested in human rights, and he wanted to study ways of preventing more genocides.

For years Mr. Rowlett had known Michael Kleiner, now 92, who had been confined at Auschwitz. While working out with Mr. Kleiner in a gym, he would listen to stories about concentration camps, and he took the slogan "Never again" to heart.

So he designed his own curriculum: "Genocide Studies, Human Rights, and International Relations."

The customized major prepared Mr. Rowlett to work to promote peace, he says. As a public-engagement associate at Public Agenda, a public-policy research-and-advocacy group, he now works to encourage political discussion and foster the kind of communal bonding that prevents hate, he says. "My work is predicated on the notion that we can come together as Americans and view each other as members of the same community. It's precisely this kind of work that prevents large-scale atrocities from happening."

Similarly, Curran P. Kennedy, a Connecticut graduate, says his individualized major, "Global Health and Poverty," prepared him to address a serious social problem. He focused his course of study on the HIV epidemic in impoverished countries.

While studying in South Africa, Mr. Kennedy says, he was struck by how many people were dying because they could not afford preventive care. So he created a major through which he could study how to help the sick and poor.

A curriculum in just one discipline would not have been sufficient to prepare him for his HIV research or for his current work as a global health-policy analyst, he says. "If you're not taking an interdisciplinary approach, then you're really limiting yourself when you're trying to address sticky issues."

Mark L. Greenberg, Drexel's provost, says individualized-major programs can help colleges be involved in large-scale problem solving.

"I think that the world is moving toward a realization that the big problems that humanity faces are not solvable from any particular discipline," he says. "Those who seek answers that cut across traditional boundaries are going to be the people that come up with the solutions."