Across the Silo: New Studies for the New Student

April 06, 2010

Posted in Higher Ed.

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I am both excited and terrified for higher education.

For many industries, it’s no longer enough to design your offerings to the customer’s demands. Customers don’t just want input – they want control. This means more customizable products, more responsive services, and more a la carte pricing.

Meanwhile, Universities are built in silos known as colleges and schools. They control their own requirements and curricula. Yet if so many students change majors after arriving at school – as many as 50 to 60 percent – why are college majors so inflexible?

A favorite example of mine is that which is closest to my daily work: the web. Which department should own a major in the web: Design? Computer science? Business? Marketing? Creative writing? Dropping such a major in a design department may leave students strong in design but very weak in all other aspects. A successful web worker should be well-versed, even competent, in all of these areas, and excel in at least one. So how do students get the experience they need to be well-rounded and versatile in an ever-changing industry?

How do students get the experience they need to be well-rounded and versatile in an ever-changing industry?

This is answered in a new book, DIY U by Anya Kamenetz. In an interview with, she describes the concept as “the idea is that you as a learner are identifying your own goals and assembling experiences that will be the most valuable for you to achieve those goals.”

An increasingly common idea is the interdisciplinary program. While not necessarily customizable, the University of Notre Dame has a new master’s degree called ESTEEM for entrepreneurs to study Engineering, Science, and Business. Duke’s new master’s degree in global health tackles a necessarily interdisciplinary topic.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t schools with “design your own major” programs. The University of Washington has an individualized studies program that lets students design their own interdisciplinary major. And the inter-college program at the University of Minnesota offers a similar opportunity.

Is this enough? Can we do better? How long before the top students eschew the beaten path and strike their own paths, at the cost of admissions at the highest level schools?


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