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The very model of a modern major

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When he was about eight years old, Louis Palmer told a friend in his native Savannah, Ga., what he wanted to be: a lawyer. "But coming from a very humble, poor background," he says, "that was almost impossible." Nevertheless, he succeeded, and for this he credits the City University of New York (CUNY) baccalaureate program. He entered it in the late 1970s at the urging of a professor who spotted the 22-year-old ex-marine at a community college in Brooklyn. Mr. Palmer remembers that "one of the main things that attracted me to it was that you wrote your own road map."

The number of programs that allow students to design their own interdisciplinary curriculum is small, but growing. Laurin Raiken, a founding professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, explains that this approach was developed in the turbulent 1960s "to provide educational models to keep students learning and on campus. At the time, they were ready to walk out."

Universities also wanted - and needed - to attract students from a wider range of ages and backgrounds.

Even though it is quintessentially '60s, the model has proven highly effective in the '80s and '90s. The lines separating academic disciplines have become increasingly blurred, new hybrids are emerging, and Americans are logging multiple careers before retirement. The population of adult students with work experience and family obligations has thus grown dramatically and with it, the demand for flexibility and control.

Lisa Prawer is a case in point. When she decided to complete her undergraduate degree, she had a full-time job and knew what she wanted: to combine an academic approach to sociology with firsthand study of the dynamics of interpersonal communication. So she applied to CUNY's baccalaureate program, a process that included compiling a portfolio of her work experience and presenting a statement of intent.

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