Creative learning: 10 colleges for free spirits

10 Best Colleges for Free Spirits | Schools.com

If you're looking for colleges with a creative atmosphere, flexibility, unusual programs and outdoor living, here are 10 options (listed alphabetically). Many of these schools emphasize social service and environmental responsibility. The academic focus encourages in-depth, independent thinking, and you can balance out that study time with activities like juggling, kayaking, martial arts or African drumming.

We picked these 10 schools for their blend of freedom and academic rigor. Some let you design your own course of study or choose from cutting-edge majors like sustainability or humanitarianism. Attending school online can offer flexibility in scheduling, and some programs require only limited residency on campus. Some colleges welcome working adults and individuals seeking career experience in addition to studies. Just remember, these green-living, life-loving environments are not for wimps -- learning comes first:

Emerson College: (Boston, Mass., and Los Angeles, Calif.) A pioneer in student broadcasting, Emerson also opened one of the nation's earliest programs in children's theater. Begun as a conservatory of elocution, oratory and dramatic art, it has a rich tradition in performance, speech pathology and communication studies. Interdisciplinary programs include business and entrepreneurial studies as well as health communications. The school hosts about 3,450 undergraduate and 835 graduate students from 45 states and 40 countries.

Evergreen State College: (Olympia, Wash.) This progressive public college encourages community-based learning. Interdisciplinary programs allow student input on designing majors, including studies focused on consciousness, somatic research, marine science or leadership. The intensive sustainability program features RecycleMania, LEED architecture and green rooftops. Situated on 1,000 acres, Evergreen boasts a beach on Puget Sound, an organic farm and teaching gardens. The school has approximately 4,900 students.

Guilford College: (Greensboro, N.C.) Flexible class scheduling allows students to gain experience through part-time jobs or internships. A focus on active, real-world learning drives social engagement like the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. The 300-acre wooded campus is over a century old and near a thriving city, and you can take classes at other local colleges. Sustainability efforts include extensive solar panels for heating water. The college hosts about 2,740 students; nearly half are adult students, and some are early college students.

Goddard College: (Plainfield, Vt.) You can help design your study program and do most of the work at home, enjoying the flexibility of online schools along with personal involvement and face time with advisers and peers. Nearly half a century ago, the college pioneered the low-residency format, which includes an intensive eight-day residency on campus each semester. The college aims for real-life learning and a culture of questioning and collaboration, with study topics such as sustainability. As of 2011, the enrollment had grown to about 800.

Hampshire College: (Amherst, Mass.) Learning builds on civic involvement, multidisciplinary studies and original research driven by student curiosity. Create an individual program of study working with faculty mentors. Discussion topics could range from mind, brain and information to power, community and social justice. The school offers activities like outdoor leadership, martial arts and yoga, as well as green initiatives like a solar canopy and sustainable farming. You can also take classes at other nearby colleges. About 1,500 students are enrolled, and more than half of all graduating students have completed advanced degrees.

Macalester College: (Saint Paul, Minn.) The focus here is both local and global: A whopping 94 percent of "Mac" students volunteer in the Twin Cities urban community, while more than half study abroad. The average class size at this liberal arts college is 18. You could choose studies like international development, statistics or neuroscience. Instead of frats or sororities, students make music in 16 different ensembles and get active with club sports like Nordic skiing and crew. This college hosts nearly 2,000 students from 49 U.S. states and 90 countries.

Oberlin College: (Oberlin, Ohio) This college proudly reports that it has admitted students without regard to race or gender since 1835. A four-year liberal arts college and a music conservatory share the campus. Studies touch on issues like poverty, colonialism, and peace and conflict. Sustainability is big -- through solar panels and energy-saving features, the environmental studies building can generate more electricity than it uses. The college website shows real-time electricity use, and a wetlands based wastewater treatment system recycles water. About 2,800 students, including 600 at the Conservatory of Music, attend Oberlin, which is located 35 miles southwest of Cleveland.

Prescott College: (Prescott, Ariz.) You can choose to live on campus or enroll in limited residency programs that offer individualized learning and the convenience of online schools. The goal is to educate students of diverse ages and backgrounds, inspiring them to give back to the community and the environment. The interdisciplinary curriculum features sustainability and environmental studies. Courses focus on experiential learning, collaboration and teamwork with a balance of self-fulfillment and service. The student body is estimated at about 780.

UC Santa Cruz: (Santa Cruz, Calif.) UCSC is all about nature, from hiking trails with views of Monterey Bay to the unusual school mascot, the banana slug. Catch a Shakespeare play amid the redwoods or join a weeding group for the California native garden. About a quarter of the produce served is certified organic, and about half is grown locally. UCSC has a history of offering both grades and narrative evaluations, and has ranked among the nation's leaders for programs like linguistics and tennis. Majors range from bioinformatics to prelaw, with graduate studies such as social documentation. Student enrollment is nearly 15,000 for undergraduates and 1,500 for graduate students.

Warren Wilson College: (Swannanoa, N.C.) Recognized for its dedication to the environment and the community, this school promotes academics for the mind, work for the hands and service for the heart. You could get involved in outdoor leadership programs or teach science enrichment in local schools. You might study Appalachian culture, peace and justice, international and non-governmental service, or pre-professional courses -- or you could design your own major. Alternative fuel vehicles, compost and garbology programs, and green building practices contribute to sustainability. About 900 students enjoy the location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Asheville.

These schools reflect the independent spirit and history of the U.S., showing an inspiring attitude toward real-world learning, helping others and caring for the environment. Of course, America is full of free spirits, and you may find more creative colleges to explore. And remember the slogan of one of these schools: Study hard, play well and dream big.

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