NEW YORK — 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."
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.
Employers 'get it'
After four years of studying journalism and graphic design, Gallatin senior Chad McCabe will get a degree in neither. But he isn't worried: With still eight months to go, Mr. McCabe already has a job offer at the newspaper where he interned last summer. Indeed, students report that graduate schools and potential employers are not thrown by the lack of a recognizable major. "When I tell them I've designed my own program," says McCabe, "they say, 'Cool!'"
Similarly, the lack of a specific bachelor's degree does not seem to harm graduate-school prospects. CUNY reports that 45 percent of its graduates have gone on to earn master's degrees; 12 percent have received doctorates.
Although some students headed for medical school prefer to get a science degree, sophomore Laureen Ojalvo thinks Gallatin's approach "will be beneficial in the long run, in that I'll have more breadth than a chemistry or biology major."
Not everyone, however, thrives in individualized study programs. "I was not disciplined enough," says Judit Vega, a junior who is thinking of transferring out of Gallatin to a traditional department. "It's been good, but I need a more structured program." Senior Jessica Tumposky agrees that "some students get very scattered," but she adds, "for me this is better. It forces me to take responsibility. Besides, our world is so complex that I don't see why you should limit yourself."
For sophomore Sarah Best, this has meant developing a program on mythology and poetry. "Both myth and poetry explore the world through metaphor," she says, explaining that her focus grew out of an independent study on the history of language and consciousness.
No one is totally on their own
But as the dean of the Gallatin School, E. Frances White, points out, 17-year-olds don't "just come in and take what they please." They work closely with advisers to choose courses from throughout the university and other institutions if necessary. Typically, individualized programs also include internships and independent study.
The same is true of graduate programs. Doctoral and undergraduate studies at The Union Institute in Ohio offer flexibility to suit a predominantly adult population. "But academic competence is hard work," says acting vice president for academic affairs Edward Wingard. Because of the interdis- ciplinary requirement, he says, "the net result is that our learners do more work than at a traditional institution."
Interdisciplinary means more than just an academic mix-and-match, explains Mark Rosenman, vice president of The Union Institute's Office of Social Responsibility in Washington, and himself a PhD graduate of the program. "In a multidisciplinary approach, you look at the problem from a variety of perspectives and report back. In an inter-disciplinary approach, you create some coherence from all those perspectives."
Students also learn skills that prove vital in the current job market. "It's the process of developing the program that's important," Dean White says. "So that when you land in a new career you know to look at your sources, you know how to ask questions and how to go about answering them."
And, as in Palmer's case, you also aren't afraid to break new ground. After CUNY, he applied to law school and received a scholarship at West Virginia College of Law. He practiced as a criminal defense lawyer, and later began to teach. Soon he discovered that there was no textbook on West Virginia law. So he wrote one. He is now working on his fourth book and is a law clerk at the Supreme Court of West Virginia. As Palmer says, "There are students like myself for whom these individualized programs are perfect."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society