Forget Rankings: 5 Innovative Colleges You May Have Never Heard Of

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Forget Rankings: 5 Innovative Colleges You May Have Never Heard Of

U.S. colleges offer students an unrivaled variety of educational experiences and opportunities. From small, private liberal arts colleges to large, public state schools to research universities and religiously affiliated institutions, there are so many great higher education destinations in the U.S.

This is all but ignored in most discussions of America’s best colleges, however. Thanks in large part to rankings like U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Colleges report, the focus remains on a handful of institutions – predominantly Ivy League or Ivy-like colleges, whose names are recognized around the world. These schools no doubt deserve recognition for the superior opportunities they provide students, but their favoring in rankings like U.S. News’ perpetuate a false belief that they offer the highest quality of education that can’t be found at institutions of lesser renown.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. To help dispel this myth and expand your college search, here are five examples of colleges that don’t grace the top 10 of U.S. News’ rankings yet provide unparalleled educational experiences that set their students up for success after graduation.


Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

This small engineering college flips the standard college engineering curriculum on its head. Where most engineering programs require students to complete a slew of foundational science and math classes before they register for engineering courses, Olin gets students engineering from the very first class. Through hands-on engineering projects, students gain immediate exposure to several areas of engineering while keeping in mind the larger context of their discipline.

According to Olin, a traditional engineering curriculum “teaches students how to solve problems, but not how to find the right problems to solve, or how to get their solutions out into the world.” At Olin, students focus on the human needs which engineering serves and “stay engaged by working on projects connected to real-world challenges.” Olin’s curriculum culminates in two capstone projects: an engineering capstone and a humanities capstone. For the engineering capstone, student teams take on an actual engineering project for a corporation, startup, or nonprofit that they partner with while for their humanities capstone, students propose and complete self-designed projects.

The small campus, located in the forested suburbs of Boston, neighbors Babson College, and the two schools share intramural sports and allow for cross-registration in classes along with nearby Wellesley College and Brandeis University. All admitted students to Olin, whose total size is only 350 students, receive the Olin Scholarship, which covers half the cost of tuition.


Allegheny College

At most colleges, selecting a major is mandatory while completing a minor is optional. Not so at Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania that is recognized as one of the most innovative liberal arts colleges in the nation. Here, students must complete a minor in a different academic division than their major, so a chemistry major could choose a social science or humanities discipline for their minor while a history major may choose a natural science or social science for their minor. This required mixing of disciplines helps ensure students receive a broad-based education and make connections across fields of knowledge.

In addition to choosing cross-disciplinary courses, every student must also complete the Senior Project, a capstone project that can take the form of intensive research, self-study, or a creative piece of work, depending on the student’s major. Not only does the Senior Project help synthesize much of what the student has learned in his or her time at Allegheny, it also acts as a stepping stone towards graduate study for those who wish to continue their education.

Unlike at many larger schools, professors at Allegheny take an active role in getting undergraduate research published. Recently, the Council on Undergraduate Research awarded Allegheny the inaugural Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishment citing the school’s systematic support for students research that begins freshman year and extends through the Senior Project.


Hendrix College

A great college experience can reorient your interests and put you on a path you could have never imagined. Hendrix College, a private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, wants to build these experiences into the curriculum through innovative programs and opportunities.

In the college’s Odyssey Program, students complete three hands-on learning experiences during their undergraduate years. For their experiences, students may choose among study abroad programs, service or volunteering projects, leadership programs, research, or artistic projects. In the course of his or her time at Hendrix, a student in the Odyssey Program may travel to Costa Rica to study the country’s rainforests, tutor other students in a leadership program, and star in a theatrical production.  

The Odyssey Program isn’t the only unique academic opportunity the school offers. The Hendrix-Murphy Program “brings acclaimed writers, poets, translators, literary critics, editors, playwrights, literary scholars, and theatre directors to campus to give public lectures and readings, teach classes, direct student plays, and mentor student writers.” Students may also apply to become a Murphy Scholar and explore literature through study, travel, and research.


Harvey Mudd College

Which school boasts the second highest mid-career salaries of graduates in the nation and produces the most graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D.? No, it’s not Harvard or any of the other Ivies, nor is it a big-name engineering school like MIT. It’s Harvey Mudd College, a private science, engineering, and mathematics liberal arts college with an enrollment of 800 students in Claremont, California.

The college’s rigorous academics begin with its Common Core, a set of required courses and labs that expose all students, regardless of their intended major, to each STEM discipline: biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, and math. This “academic bootcamp” endows students with a strong scientific foundation that will inform the rest of their studies and help them solve problems that require cross-disciplinary knowledge.

However, while the curriculum focuses on STEM, the humanities and social sciences aren’t neglected, as students are required to fill a quarter of their coursework with humanities, arts, or social sciences classes. Though Harvey Mudd offers a robust catalogue of such classes, students may also take courses at any of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of small liberal arts colleges that share campuses.


Deep Springs College

Without exaggeration, Deep Springs College provides a college experience unlike any other. While the school only offers associate degrees (most students transfer to a four-year institution after finishing Deep Spring’s two year curriculum), learning is nonstop, whether it’s from composing an essay for a writing seminar, cooking dinner for the entire student body, or discussing admission decisions with classmates to decide next year’s incoming students.

Students run most of the operations at the college, which is isolated in a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert along the California-Nevada border, including admission decisions, faculty hiring, and curriculum. Along with coursework, students complete at least 20 hours of labor each week, helping run the college or maintaining the school’s livestock or alfalfa hay farm.  Self-reliance, responsibility, and cooperation aren’t just educational goals but rather the daily necessities of attending Deep Springs. With a total enrollment of a few more than 20 male students, Deep Springs could be the most exclusive college in America, and more than half of its graduates go on to earn a doctorate. Tuition, room, and board are free, and there are plans to begin accepting female applicants.  


This list of schools is not meant to be exhaustive. There are countless more colleges and universities whose innovative and challenging curriculums are producing critical thinkers and problem solvers who will go on to lead brilliant careers in their chosen fields. The important thing to remember is that there’s so much more to America’s educational landscape than the perpetual “top 10” schools you see each year in college rankings.

While this isn’t to say you should scrap your application to Princeton or give up your dream of attending Williams, it doesn’t hurt to broaden your college search. You may be surprised by what you find.

Which schools are you considering in your college search? Let us know in the comments below.    


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