Terms are 10-weeks long, which is not as long as you think it is. Classes meet 2-3 times a week and reading assignments are light. Most classes have a term-project requirement, which is typically a variation on a presentation or term-paper. Professors make room for students to delve deeply into subjects that interest them and relate it to class material, but as far as resources go, don't contribute much. The library at the school is small and does not keep a high standard of journal subscriptions. Research projects are challenging if students don't have a connection to a larger university with better resources. It's possible to be engaged and learn a great deal here, and it's just as easy to float by. That doesn't make COA special... what's special is that you can get a B here either way.
Ken Robinson presents a fascinating tedTalk entitled "Do schools kill creativity?" If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look. The type of education he endorses is exactly what COA offers. You are forced to design your own education at COA, taking the courses that you think best address the problems you want to solve in this world. There's no planned trajectory, and so students can marry their diverse interests into a practical, beneficial project or course of study. There are no traditional departments, but faculty members become the de-facto representatives of disciplines. While we say there are no inherent divisions in different areas of study, they do functionally exist. There are definite scientists, strict artists and students with the politics bug so far up their butt you never want to mention it around them. The great thing is that if you want to write a ballad about the importance of composting, you can.
Class participation is mandatory. You'll be in classes with 11 other people on the average, and often with just 4-5 other pupils. It's painfully obvious if you didn't do the reading, but that's a great motivator. Presentations and papers are the standard form of work. Tests are rare to non-existent. This means you'll be doing a lot of writing. Late-night cram sessions are centered around hammering out these papers as opposed to cramming for a test, memorizing facts you'll just forget after the exam.
Professors are very accessible (first name basis, home phone numbers, potlucks and visits to their house if they like you) but also very busy. You are assigned an advisor to help guide you through a very de-structured 4 year undergrad education, and this is most often the professor in your primary focus (not everyone has just one focus, or even a predominant focus, though). You have to work to arrange meetings and get what you need done. No one is going to baby you, but you're a young adult, and this is something you'll get used to.
Motivation, passion and a laid-back but still A-type personality are attributes of successful students here. You can float through your education, taking introductory courses and never fully committing. Students who come here do not do this, though. A lot of high-quality work is expected, and most students rise to this. Academics extend even to the residential life, conversations about the importance of pop-culture continuing over dinner, or why the ocean is screwed being discussed while getting your hair braided.
Classes at COA are small and mostly discussion based. They have a certain amount of spontaneity and uncertainty. If you need to know exactly what will happen next week in class you will be frustrated by this. Professors are open to ideas and alternative view points which lends itself to this sort of free form curriculum. All students at COA major in human ecology, which is defined as our dependence upon and responsibility to our natural, social and created environment. The interdisciplinary curriculum allows students to approach this through all different ways. It is easy to be a dilettante at COA but it is also to become a well rounded student who has a distinct focus that relates directly to human ecology. It is assumed that students will take the free form curriculum and find the tools necessary to address their own interests. It will not be handed to you own a silver platter. A certain amount of maturity and self discipline is needed to strive in this environment. Not everyone at COA has this but not everyone is successful. However if students take initiative they will be able to do more at COA than any other school. As a student just finishing my first term I have learned this first hand. Along with two other students who were also frustrated with perspective material we felt did not represent our college, I was able to be a part of the group that will make next years admissions material. This isn't something that will happen at any other college. Recently a number of 2nd and 3rd year students presented their work and a national conference on ornithology along side scientists who have been studying birds for years. Opportunities at COA are unlike any other but you have to actively seek them out and if you are not prepared to do so your experience will not be much different than that of other alternative colleges.
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