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Custom College Degrees & Individualized Programs

Updated on May 7, 2013

If you are like most first-time college students, you'll have a hard time declaring a major or choosing a particular academic program. After graduating high school, it took me seven years to feel ready to move forward with my education. Most of that time was spent learning about myself while the rest of it was due to a general lack of interest in any programs I could find in college catalogs. When you're awareness of personal interest and goals finally peaks, it's just a matter of finding a degree that fits YOUR career needs.

What is a Non-Catalog Degree?

It's just that. It doesn't have a place in your university's catalog of programs offered. A non-catalog, or individualized degree program is something you will craft while working with different academic advisers, both in your departments of interest and in the department for individualized studies (or some similar name).

The curriculum you choose will still have similar credit hour and elective requirements as traditional degrees, and will have to be approved by department chairs and deans. These requirements differ slightly between universities, but will include a minimum amount of credit hours in general studies, you choice of major, upper division courses, an optional minor, and a specific amount of total credit hours needed to graduate.

Example titles of these non-conformist degrees:

  • Water Management & Conservation (vs. an Environmental Science major).
  • Review and Criticism within the Food & Beverage Industry (vs. Journalism).
  • Developing & Marketing Applications for Personal Devices (vs. Computer Science).

Relevant Courses Only Please!

Students interested in an individualized degree have a lot of research to do. The good news is that most schools have the information you need right on their website. So your first step is to locate your school's online catalog and course descriptions, sift through every single class offered, and make a list of the ones that really interest you. You will end up with a majority of credits in one or two departments. These are the departments you will be in contact with for the most part, and they will be who you'll submit your proposed program to.

Collect the requirements for degree completion (online or with an adviser) and compare the courses you have chosen with these requirements. You may be short on credit hours and have to pick up some electives, or you might be over. The point is you now have a wish-list to work with exactly the courses that you feel are relevant to your goals and none of the fluff. Bring together all your requirements, adding or dropping courses from your plan as needed until you and your advisers are satisfied with the curriculum and title chosen for your custom major, minor, or concentration.

The process of sorting through courses and reviewing requirements over, and over, and OVER again is tedious. If you're an extremely focused and assertive person, as most students interested in this program are, you may have your entire plan complete within a month. Don't be discouraged, no matter how long it takes for you to get it together. You will be worlds happier with the way you've spent your time (and money!) in school by sticking to your goals.

Combining Interests & Cutting the Fat

Mixing and matching is common in custom degrees. You might choose a catalog linguistics major and create a custom minor or concentration in "computational linguistics" to accompany it by adding some computer science courses. This approach works so long as you and your advisers agree your school offers the courses needed to meet your goals. However, if it does not, you may still be able to get the degree you want.

For example. I want to be a foreign language major, but my school only offers Spanish, French, or German as concentrations.On top of that, I have an even more specific career goal: To teach ESL (English as a Second Language) courses for speakers of Spanish and Arabic, and perform as a translator in a telecommuting position. So the degree I want might be titled "Foreign Language Translation, concentrating in ESL."

My chosen school, Metropolitan State University of Denver doesn't offer any Arabic classes, but the nearby University of Denver does. Working with my Individualized Learning Department, I can "borrow" my Arabic courses into a degree that I will finish at MSU. Specifically, I will attend UD for a couple semesters and get the number of credit hours I want in Arabic, then transfer those back to MSU. I will have, of course added additional classes to increase my awareness of issues in the field of translating among other things. In the end, I will receive the degree title I wanted.

My custom degree allows my education to be more efficient and work better with my end goal. Not only that, but when there's a job posting for translation work, you can bet my resume will stick out above other applicants with a "Foreign Language" major listed under their education.


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