Forget the Ivy League: Try One of These Little-Known Educational Gems

If you think an Ivy League school is the only way to go, think again. Sure, you get a first-rate education, but Ivy League schools are expensive and difficult to get into. For many, even those with high ACT scores and excellent academic records, an Ivy League school degree is unobtainable. Fortunately, the United States is full of academic institutions that not only offer a superior education, but also fit the individual needs of students better than many of their more stalwart counterparts. These little-known educational gems are more affordable and provide an education that, in some respects, leaves the Ivy League schools far behind.

Different Doesn’t Mean Easy

Reed College in Oregon is a liberal arts college that boasts an impressive list of alumni, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, poets Gary Snyder, Mary Barnard and Philip Whalen, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and chef James Beard. The emphasis is less on grades and more on academic excellence. Reed sets a high standard for its students, where students are often required to read 300 pages and write a 20-page paper in a single night. Professors treat students as peers. Reed College is an ideal match for students who are ready to push themselves to learn and experience one of the most rigorous academic programs in the United States, Ivy League schools included.

Similar to Reed College, St. John’s College is a co-ed liberal arts school with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. St John’s has one of the most unique degree programs in the United States. Textbooks and lectures are non-existent. Instead, students read from, study and discuss the “great books,” including the works of Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Galileo and Plato. The curriculum is rigorous. In addition to the required reading list, students must learn Greek and French. Graduates consistently win awards at the same rate as those who graduate from Ivy League schools.

Design Your Own Educational Experience

Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is a public liberal arts and sciences college that gives students plenty of academic freedom. There are no pre-programmed majors. Students design their own areas of study. Grades are not used. Students receive narrative evaluations instead, filled with meaningful and useful feedback. Students are also encouraged to provide feedback for their instructors after each quarter.

The motto of Sarah Lawrence College is, “You are different. So are we.” There are no majors at Sarah Lawrence. Students choose their own “concentration,” by selecting classes in four primary areas of study that include history, natural sciences, mathematics, humanities and creative arts. Classes are seminars, which have 15 or fewer students, and are supplemented with individualized assignments that field each student’s individual needs and interests. Written evaluations take the place of grades and no tests are administered. Students who are self-starters excel in the school’s independent study atmosphere.

Looking for a less stressful college experience? You might want to try Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Founded by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford scholar Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Naropa is a non-sectarian university that combines contemplative study programs with artistic and traditional Western scholastic disciplines. In other words, you can take psychology classes that incorporate meditation for a Zen-like experience.

Business and environmentalism meet at the Maharishi University of Management. Located in Fairfield, Iowa, the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) offers M.B.A. programs on a sustainable environmental campus. Meals are vegetarian and the campus is drug and alcohol-free. Small classrooms, individual attention and daily meditation provide students with the tools to succeed.

Allegheny College in scenic Meadville, Pennsylvania, is a small, private liberal arts college. What makes it unique is that it requires student to declare a minor, as well as a major, and minors must be in a different division than the student’s major, ensuring a graduate who is well rounded academically. The 2012 U.S. News and World Report called Allegheny an “up and coming” and “innovative” Tier 1 liberal arts school.

Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, offers a curriculum like no other. Students and professors team together to design a program of study that fits the individual needs and talents of each student. First year students take courses in five “schools of thought” that include the School of Cognitive Science, the School of Critical Social Inquiry, School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, School for Interdisciplinary Arts and School of Natural Sciences. Second year students study a subject in depth and third year students complete a large-scale project. No grades are given.