In its most general form, an experimental college is a school that dissents from the orthodox approach to undergraduate (or graduate) education. While comprehensive, this definition is admittedly vague; there are a nearly infinite number of ways to break from the mold, but due to both ideological and practical limitations, only a fraction of these options will ever be pursued. Most experimental colleges don’t overhaul all aspects of the institution–instead they choose a handful of specific areas that are perceived to be deficient in the traditional approach. Particular focus tends to be put on the experimental college’s pedagogy, as this is the primary area of contention with mainstream colleges.
The traditional approach to college instruction tends, at least stereotypically, to focus on lectures; one professor speaking in an hour long monologue with only the occasional break for student questions. Experimental colleges try to break apart this pedagogical monopoly by changing the classroom dynamic. One example of this is so-called “project based learning”, where students cooperate to solve holistic problems as their class work, rather than simply memorize disparate information for exams. This change in instruction method mirrors a larger shift in the objective of education; experimental colleges often desire to create “well-rounded” students with enhanced general intelligence. This is not to say that all experimental colleges must adopt such a goal–keeping in mind how broad the category is–but many such schools have taken issue with the information deluge that is common among orthodox colleges.
While novel educational methodology is a significant component of experimental colleges, it need not be its only manifestation. Some schools have tried to experiment with the layout or structure of the college as a whole; for example, online schools have eschewed traditional brick-and-mortar construction in favor of virtual learning. Many of these colleges have also adopted a for-profit system which, regardless of its actual merit, is undoubtedly experimental given the traditional perception of higher education as being a social service. There are many different ways in which an experimental college can seek to upend the collegiate status quo, and the mere fact that a school is “experimental” in no way implies that what it is doing is needed or even beneficial–it is simply different.