college options

Should You Be Asking about These Special College Options?

These four programs – “alternatives” to the traditional college experience – may be the exact path your kid needs to consider.

Every year, parents ask me about four programs that, in one way or another, provide an “alternative” to the standard college experience. But many College Prep Parents (and their students) might not realize they’re available – or time runs out before they do. These programs include Study Abroad, Great Books Colleges, the Gap Year, and Honors Programs.

Is any of these four options right for everybody? No. But each seems like a great choice for many students – and one or more might set your kid up to thrive in their college years and beyond.

Study Abroad

Studying in a foreign country has never been easier. Spending time taking classes in a much different location than one’s college has become a common occurrence. Some American colleges have “sister schools” abroad and have the use of their campuses. Other programs have more flexible arrangements. Studying abroad can be used as an enrichment experience (going deeper in certain subjects because of the location), or a refreshing interlude after working long and hard at the home campus. For some college degree plans, studying abroad is not even optional – it’s part of the program.

College students majoring in Art History, Architecture, and language study have always needed to keep a passport handy, but now many major fields of study might have an international component. While this option wouldn’t normally be available in your child’s first semester, it’s an important component to consider when looking ahead.

I have known students to be involved in a variety of international study plans. Some have gone to school abroad for a whole semester, taking classes that are necessary for their degree. Others have traveled to a foreign country during a break from the regular term at home, taking a concentrated course or two that counted as an elective… or just for the experience. Some programs are based on instruction in English, with additional cultural interaction happening outside of the classroom. Other programs have classroom instruction in the language of that country, providing more complete immersion in the culture.

If this appeals to your college-bound kid (or you sense that this kind of “stretching” might be great for them), be sure they look into study abroad opportunities when they are researching colleges.

“Great Books“ College

College admission posters are interesting to me. The intended purpose of a poster, I assume, is to give an impression of a school with a single glance. I have observed through the years many pictures of happy students studying under campus trees, the bright colors of a packed gym with shiny waxed floors, and serious students with lab glasses peering into beakers.

But of all the posters I have seen, one stood out to me as the most informative: In large print, at the top of a tall stack of books, this college announced that “our top teachers are all returning this year.” You see, the books were stacked with their authors appearing clearly: Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, and many more in that classical vein. Their names made the intended point. The approach of that college, and others like them, is to study original and early sources, focusing on the thoughts of classic thinkers in their own words. Their goal isn’t simply exposure to famous literature, but examining famous foundational thought.

Colleges and universities have long depended on classic literature to support many of the subjects taught. But some schools (and some programs within otherwise more traditional colleges) rely almost entirely on a curriculum of “Great Books.” In the 1930s, St. John’s College (in Annapolis and Santa Fe) started a program based entirely upon a foundation of original and early sources to teach all their courses. Their example has been followed by other colleges and universities through the decades. (St. John’s current books list will give you a good sense of their particular approach, or see a list of schools with Great Books curricula.)

If your student loves books – I mean really loves books – they may want to consider a Great Books-focused college or program. They can also expect instructors to act more as facilitators of discussion – letting the author’s words be the main teacher. Some students find it very appealing to “go straight to the source” in this way. Proponents of these programs suggest that their students acquire a certain “mental agility” by spending time in discussions instead of lectures. Does it sound like your college prep kid might thrive in this unique environment? Then it’s worth checking out as they consider schools.

Gap Year

The idea of taking time off between high school and college is a popular option for some students. Whether it is to save money for future education, to seize the opportunity for a significant formative experience, or because the student is uncertain about their next steps in formal education, taking a “gap year” can be a rewarding experience.

I’ve seen students take a variety of formal and informal gap year experiences:

  • Nine months certification in First Responder Mountain Rescue
  • Living for a year in South America to learn a language
  • Learning about worldviews, apologetics, and other aspects of their faith
  • Participating in an archeology dig in the Middle East
  • Serving and studying onboard a ship
  • Working at a Christian youth camp
  • International youth travel program
  • Missionary sports outreach

This list represents just a few of the dozens of types of programs that might be possible for your student. An important ingredient to having a great experience taking a gap year is planning. Researching the organizations and options – and getting in contact with past participants – are keys to success.

Honors Program

Honors programs – sometimes known as Honors Colleges – are large-scale programs for students with extraordinary ability – and a desire to connect with others on the same highly academic path. These “schools within a school” have long existed to offer something special to those who qualify. Often found at large universities, honors programs can make a big school seem as personal as a college with a much smaller enrollment.

Honors Colleges usually have an extra application process for those students who have already been admitted to the larger university. The qualifications vary but often involve high grades, good test scores, great recommendations, and additional application essays – just like the steps to regular admission but with an eye toward identifying the most talented and motivated.

Students that I have known who were attracted to the Honors programs of their universities were those who routinely sought academic challenge, preferred smaller class size, and recognized the value of building working relationships with professors. (These relationships often provide mentors or result in participating in academic research alongside these experts.)

If you are a College Prep Parent with a kid who is always looking for an academic challenge, be sure to keep on the lookout for an Honors program if there is one available at their school of choice. Or the availability of a strong Honors option might be a deciding factor as your student creates his or her college “shortlist.”

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