The very model of a modern major
When he was about eight years old, Louis Palmer told a friend in his native Savannah, Ga., what he wanted to be: a lawyer. "But coming from a very humble, poor background," he says, "that was almost impossible." Nevertheless, he succeeded, and for this he credits the City University of New York (CUNY) baccalaureate program. He entered it in the late 1970s at the urging of a professor who spotted the 22-year-old ex-marine at a community college in Brooklyn. Mr. Palmer remembers that "one of the main things that attracted me to it was that you wrote your own road map."Skip to next paragraph
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The number of programs that allow students to design their own interdisciplinary curriculum is small, but growing. Laurin Raiken, a founding professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, explains that this approach was developed in the turbulent 1960s "to provide educational models to keep students learning and on campus. At the time, they were ready to walk out."
Universities also wanted - and needed - to attract students from a wider range of ages and backgrounds.
Even though it is quintessentially '60s, the model has proven highly effective in the '80s and '90s. The lines separating academic disciplines have become increasingly blurred, new hybrids are emerging, and Americans are logging multiple careers before retirement. The population of adult students with work experience and family obligations has thus grown dramatically and with it, the demand for flexibility and control.
Lisa Prawer is a case in point. When she decided to complete her undergraduate degree, she had a full-time job and knew what she wanted: to combine an academic approach to sociology with firsthand study of the dynamics of interpersonal communication. So she applied to CUNY's baccalaureate program, a process that included compiling a portfolio of her work experience and presenting a statement of intent.
"I never regretted my choice," she says. "It has been to my advantage in all areas of my life." Since she graduated in 1986, she has taught life and parenting skills to women in an alcohol-rehabilitation center, been a childbirth educator, and is now poised to set up her own business "in the field of sociology and communications," she says.
Appeals to undergrads
Even younger students are increasingly interested in designing their own field of study. When Gallatin was first established as the "University Without Walls" in 1972, its population was predominantly older than the traditional college student. Today, while its master's program continues to attract working men and women, 80 percent of Gallatin's 700 undergraduates fall within the traditional five-year span.
Not surprisingly, programs are cropping up around the United States. Some, like CUNY, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the College of University Studies at North Dakota State University, offer only a bachelor's degree, while others - including George Mason University in Virginia, the McGregor School of Antioch University in Ohio, and The Union Institute in Ohio - offer graduate degrees.
Still, the number of students remains small. There are no statistics on individualized programs per se, but a 1997 study by the National Center for Education Statistics serves as an overall indicator. It reports that, of the more than 1.6 million bachelor's degrees earned in 1995, only 2 percent were in an interdisciplinary major. At the master's level, the number dropped to less than 0.4 percent and the proportion of doctorates was a mere 0.04 percent.
Perhaps this is because potential students - and their parents or spouses - are concerned that the vague designation of the degree will cause problems in the real world. State certification laws govern institutions, which cannot issue a diploma for most interdisciplinary studies because their subjects do not officially exist.