The Marlboro College curriculum began with a series of propositions:
- Students do their best work and are most fulfilled when working on questions of their own devising.
- These questions often transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries.
- Students’ intellect and character develop when given the time and freedom to explore these questions in depth.
- All students, regardless of their questions, must be able to write clearly and compellingly.
From these propositions emerged a four-year liberal arts curriculum divided roughly into two distinct two-year phases. In the first two years, students devoted themselves to three tasks. First, they took writing seminars to develop their capacity for clear written expression. All students were required to assemble a writing portfolio of nonfiction essays that passed examination by readers drawn from the entire college faculty. Second, students developed a broad familiarity with the liberal arts, choosing from classes across the four main divisions of the curriculum: Sciences, Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities. There were no specific course or distribution requirements, and each student worked with their academic adviser to devise a suitably broad individualized course of study. Third, by the end of their sophomore year, students committed to a self-designed field of study to guide their explorations during the second two-year phase.
During the second phase, students were considered to be ‘on Plan’ – that is, working toward their ‘Plan of Concentration’: a collection of projects that could range from essays to lab experiments, and from novels to ceramic sculptures, all exploring a linked set of questions. In the junior year, students typically combined advanced coursework with one-on-one tutorials sponsored by individual faculty members who possessed expertise relevant to the student’s field of study. These tutorials required the student to take the initiative for mapping out guiding questions, reading lists, and assignments. By the end of the year, students had sufficient command of the fundamentals of their field to commit to specific, meaningful projects in that field.
In the senior year, students would concentrate on more advanced tutorials, providing them the space to delve deeply into their research and creative work. These tutorials were often bolstered by participation in small-group Plan writing seminars, choreography groups, or art critique seminars, providing peer support and feedback. At the end of their first senior semester, students typically received progress grades rather than final grades, an acknowledgment that the work of the year was holistic and not complete until the end of the second senior semester.
At the conclusion of senior year, each student would take part in an Oral Evaluation directed by the Marlboro faculty who had sponsored the student’s research and joined by an expert from outside the college who had the topical or disciplinary expertise to critically assess the student’s work from a fresh perspective. At this examination, the Outside Evaluator and Marlboro faculty sponsors would arrive at a grade for each component of the Plan work and the weighted average of these grades would be recorded as the final grade for all the Plan work undertaken during the year.
The capacity of the faculty to work so closely with advanced students and with one another depended on Marlboro’s size—roughly 300 students—and its faculty: student ratio, which ranged over the years from 1:5 to 1:8. Even introductory classes were no bigger than 15 students, and often had half that number.
In addition to BA and BS degrees, Marlboro offered Bachelor of Arts or Sciences in International Studies through its World Studies Program, developed in conjunction with its neighbor, the School for International Training. This program required students to pursue a more structured curriculum, including foreign language study and a six-to-eight-month internship abroad.