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What is an Alternative College?

Gregory Hanson
Gregory Hanson

An alternative college seeks to achieve better educational outcomes by employing non-traditional methods of pedagogy or academic organization. Some alternative colleges avoid using conventional grades, relying instead on other forms of evaluation. Other such colleges are organized in ways that challenge the conventional western university model. In some other cases, an alternative college might do away with the traditional timetable for university education or with conventional methods for content delivery.

A classic western-style college is a mix between hierarchical and egalitarian systems of organization. Typically, faculty members are broadly equal with one another, and enjoy a certain degree of academic and job security thanks to a tenure system that limits the ability of administrators to remove them. Some colleges have attempted to do away with the institution of tenure, in an attempt to make faculty members more accountable for their success as educators. Bennington College in Vermont was one of the first schools to adopt this practice, and many colleges, particularly for-profit colleges, have followed this example.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Students in a typical college attend classes, do work, and receive letter grades as an indication of their progress. In an alternative college, different methods of assessment are sometimes used in place of the traditional grading system. Evergreen College famously issues non-grade evaluations of student work, with the intent to reduce stress on students, allowing them to focus more effectively on simply learning and growing intellectually. This philosophy hinges on the idea that evaluations are most useful when they re-direct student effort and attention, instead of simply acting as filters to screen out students whose performance is not up to par.

Ordinary colleges offer classes during semesters or quarters, and in these colleges students take several classes at the same time. One school of thought contends that this model leads to distracted and unfocused students. In some cases, an alternative college may offer classes in a different format. Cornell College is famous for having students take a single class at a time, with the idea that this will allow them to more effectively focus their efforts and may make the transitions between different phases of a series of related but challenging courses less difficult for students.

The rise of the Internet produced other models for how an alternative college might be structured. Some colleges offer all of their content online, a practice that has great potential advantages, especially for delivering educational content to students with unusual schedules or in remote locations. More loosely-structured alternative colleges have also begun to appear on the internet. Eventually, this sort of alternative college, based loosely on the idea of open-source education, might serve as a way to connect academics interested in offering their services as charitable contributions with students who might otherwise be unable to gain access to higher education.

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