Customizing the College Experience


The Wall Street Journal had a story today by Michelle Hackman about the growing number of college students who are earning degrees in multi- or interdisciplinary studies. The number of such degrees increased by 74% from 2003-2013, making it the fourth-fastest-growing type of major among those with at least 10,000 degrees granted.

While many schools offer prepackaged interdisciplinary majors that group courses in similar subject areas, allowing such schools to expand degree offerings for students without hiring new faculty, other schools allow students to create their own customized program.

For example, a student at Brown combined classes in love and relationships across departments like sociology, psychology, and literature into a major. As a result, she was able to both analyze romantic literature and conduct survey-based experiments on other Brown students’ sexual experiences. She called her major “Love”, and the experience led her to creating her own dating web site, Dating Ring.

Another example was of a student at NYU who combined classes in psychology, art, and world languages to understand different approaches to psychotherapy. He plans to use the degree to become a counselor or teacher, but he is calling the major “self-actualization.”

While at first glance some may scoff at degrees with such names as “love” and “self-actualization”, there seems to be growing acceptance of such an approach to earning a college degree.

Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said some employers are beginning to express enthusiasm for interdisciplinary programs because they can teach students a broad array of analytical skills on a specific topic that engages them.

Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, stated in a speech at MIT that he believes innovation comes from “having two or more specialties, and applying the framework of one specialty to the framework of another specialty,” what he calls “mashing”.

Ken Robinson, in his TED talk, states that he defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value — more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.” 

The New Yorker did a story on Steve Jobs back in 2011, and part of the story looks at the value Jobs placed on combining technology and the liberal arts:

When introducing the iPad 2 in March, Jobs summarized his strategy this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” Such platitudes are common in Silicon Valley, where executives routinely introduce shiny gadgets with lofty language. But what set all of Jobs’s companies apart, from Pixar to NeXT to Apple, was, indeed, an insistence that computer scientists must work together with artists and designers—that the best ideas emerge from the intersection of technology and the humanities. “One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side,” Jobs said in 2003.

That’s a lot of support for the value of bringing multiple disciplines together in order to enhance innovation, creativity, and problem solving in the business world, so why not let students pursue such an approach while in college.

I always encourage my business students, if they have the ability and desire to pursue a second major, to pick up a second major outside the business school. Unfortunately, very few students pursue such a path, but instead end up double majoring in a variety of business disciplines such as accounting and finance, marketing and MIS, etc. I think by doing so, they are missing out on opportunities for creativity and innovation that could result from multi-disciplinary studies. (I don’t consider double majoring within the business school to be multi-disciplinary).

So I applaud students who pursue a multi-disciplinary or customized degree, as well as the schools that permit such degrees, and I think Tom, Ken, and Steve would commend you as well.

And if someone were to create a customized degree that  combined courses from the sciences, the humanities, fine arts, business, engineering, law, and medicine, I have the perfect name for such a degree – the Monster Mash…


4 thoughts on “Customizing the College Experience

  1. Monster Mash – you are too funny.

    I love the idea of customization, although I can imagine the logistics might make me reach for the Tylenol if I were the administrator of such a program. (Or the student trying to keep everything straight.)

    I majored in journalism and minored in Spanish, so I guess I’d fall under your admonition to study outside my main discipline.

    Thanks for keeping me up to date on what’s happening in academia. 🙂

    1. Hi Suzy, I would imagine it is a nightmare keeping track of these types of degree programs. Perhaps it could all be simplified by just telling students how many credits they need, and as long as they meet that requirement, they earn the degree.

      Have you been able to utilize your Spanish minor?

      My oldest son was an English and Journalism major, with a minor in Political Science, and he’s actually managed to combine those fields as the editor of the Raleigh Public Record, an online newspaper focused on the political and business side of Raleigh.

      Hope all is well.

      1. My first job out of college was at a Southern California newspaper, in an area with a large Latino population, but I didn’t use the Spanish much at work. Before I started the job, though, I spent seven weeks as a summer missionary in Guatemala, and I used it a lot there.

        I’m sad to report that my Spanish skills are sadly lacking, 26 years after I got my degree. But I love the language and the culture.

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