Many families get stuck in trying to dig up the real differences between colleges. The basic distinctions are out there: size of the student body, public versus private, research university versus liberal arts college, location, name brand, etc. 

But there are so many schools thinking just a bit outside the box -- doing something just a little different, which many families have often never even heard of.

I thought I'd use this post to toss out a list of the specialized offerings out there that might dramatically change the college experience for a student considering the options:

  1. Honors programs: often a way to get the best of both worlds -- a tight-knit learning environment in a big university environment -- these programs have many variants. Of note: check out Swarthmore's seminar program.
  2. Co-op programs: build a robust word resume during your undergraduate years by alternating semesters between internships and the classroom. Of note: Northeastern University's co-op program has helped elevate the school's profile across the country.
  3. Design your own major: another steadily growing offering at many schools, students get to cobble together their course of study according to their interests -- with sound advising, of course. Of note: Hampshire College was built around the idea of a customizable course of study. (Just don't let them hear you call it a major!)
  4. Block programs: concentrate...just one thing at a time! Taking one course at a time is a radical shift for many students, but the alternate schedule affords some unique opportunities. Of note: get a sense of the possibilities Cornell College's program affords its students.
  5. Major-minor requirements: the jobs of tomorrow demand an ability to think in an interdisciplinary way. While many schools offer students the possibility of multiple majors and minors, there are few that mandate it in their curriculum. Of note: Allegheny College lays out an simple case for why a major-minor requirement is in the student's best interest.
  6. 4 + 1 accelerated degree programs: if you're REALLY the academic type, earn your bachelor's AND an MA, MPH, MBA, or MS degree in half the time (and tuition dollars!) it'd take otherwise. Of note: the Claremont Consortium has pooled all of its five schools' resources and offers a variety of options.
  7. 3-2 engineering programs: torn between a bachelor's in science and an engineering track? With this program, you can graduate with both degrees in five years. Of note: Goucher College's partnership with Columbia University balances the small liberal arts experience with a powerhouse research university.
  8. January term: take a little break from the regular ol' semester system with a winter interlude. Travel or take that art intensive you've always wanted. Of note: St. Mary's College in CA does Jan term right.
  9. Great books curriculum: if you're an avid reader with an insatiable love of learning how all of our major Western fields of study came to be what they are today, look no further. St. John's College, which has campuses in Annapolis, MD, and Santa Fe, NM, offers this singular track.
  10. Financial literacy course requirements: why basic financial literacy isn't a core part of our schools' curricula -- at the secondary or post-secondary level -- is beyond me. It's a part of life. Of note: Champlain College stays true to its pre-professional roots with its required financial literacy coursework.