The Beloit Plan: A Unique Experiment
The Beloit Plan, with its year-round curriculum and emphasis on experience in new learning environments, was a complete rethinking of what a college education should be. It attracted an extraordinary cohort of students and produced a remarkable generation of alumni.
With its unconventional year-round calendar, common courses, and required Field Term, the Beloit Plan put Beloit College on the map when it launched in 1964. Although it ended after only 14 years, the Plan’s legacy is still alive through the remarkable alumni who took part in it, and in the college itself, which continues to be an innovator in higher education. (U.S. News & World Report ranked Beloit No. 5 on its most innovative schools list in 2021.)
“… Beloit College believes that the educational process must be subject to continuing re-examination and improvement. The alert and sensitive college does not stand still. It studies the requirement of today and, necessarily, of tomorrow.”
— From Educational Blueprint for Beloit College, a 1959 report that laid the groundwork for the Beloit Plan.
In the ’60s, when the college debuted its new educational plan, enrollment increased and Beloit started attracting a more geographically diverse student body, among other things.
Before the Plan, the majority of Beloit’s students came from Wisconsin and Illinois, but five years into the program, only 37 percent were from those states, more students enrolled from both coasts, and the student body hailed from 48 states and 22 countries.
Bringing students with different backgrounds together at a residential liberal arts college was only one part of the Plan’s genius. Another was a complete reimagining of the traditional undergraduate schedule.
Instead of following a traditional four-year trajectory from first-year to senior, students enrolled in three 15-week periods and progressed through designations called Underclass, Middleclass, and Upperclass. Each one required a certain number of academic terms, combined with off-campus experiences, such as jobs, study abroad, time off, or a Field Term.
The idea was to help students establish intellectual competence, then get them out into the world to test and expand what they were learning. The course of study was individualized, with the expectation that students would tailor courses and experiences to their interests.
The required Field Term itself was groundbreaking, and its outward focus reverberates today in Beloit’s emphasis on helping students connect their liberal arts education with a fulfilling career.
Members of the ad hoc committee that devised the Field Term argued that this period of work, service, or research—preferably off campus and away from home—would help students shed their provincial outlooks. A brochure touted the Field Term as “an organized attempt to send students into new living and learning environments.”
Often, the Field Term opened students’ eyes to how they wanted to live their lives.
Nearly 5,500 Beloit students completed the terms in 49 states, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and 57 countries. Their final reports, many housed in the College Archives, capture the program’s impact in students’ own words, as they adapted to challenges and unfamiliar roles, often in faraway places.
Voices: The Beloit Plan
“I had my life changed and profoundly deepened by the Beloit Plan. An internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 1971—followed immediately by an on-campus apprenticeship with the late, great Beloit Court Theater—set me on a course in professional theatre. [I joined] the artistic and producing management of the New American Theater in Rockford, the Beloit Festival Theatre through the summers of the 1980s, the Utah Shakespeare Festival through the early 2000s, the Pearl Theatre Company in New York, and now the Irish Theatre of Chicago. The Beloit Plan Field Term experience placed me in the middle of a thriving resident professional theatre staffed with brilliant mentors in every department, from directors to designers to actors to technicians. I even spent time in the administrative offices typing season ticket renewal forms (remember IBM Selectric typewriters?). Beloit set me on my life’s path with more confidence and ambition than I had before, and both were vital if I were to have any chance at a life in the theatre.” —J.R. Sullivan’72
Jessica Mott’75 started at Beloit as a self-described “flaky, hippie student,” but her experiences during the Beloit Plan were transforming, leading her to a master’s degree at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and driving her to take on wide-ranging international projects with the World Bank focused on land administration and natural resource management. An international relations major, Mott completed three Field Terms: one teaching at a New Hampshire outdoor education camp, another at a Spanish-speaking summer camp near Boston, and a third in Arequipa, Peru, where she joined a group of 18 other Beloiters nicknamed “El Grupo Wis.” There, she took classes at the local university—entirely in Spanish. She and her peers learned from their host families and traveled around the country. Because the Plan had built-in flexibility, Mott stayed in Peru for another semester teaching English as a second language in a local American institute before graduating.
Drawn to Beloit for its alternative curriculum, Barb Sheinberg’78 spent her first three trimesters on campus before setting out on a series of natural sciences Field Terms. At an environmental camp in Ocean Park, Maine, she taught ecology classes to children who had never before seen a cranberry bog. She worked one summer on an organic farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada, before a final Field Term at a lab in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Quickly, Sheinberg discovered that testing the amount of chlorine required to eradicate invasive freshwater clams was not something she wanted to continue doing, although she was grateful for the experience. “You probably learn more when you have an experience with things that you really don’t like, like killing clams!” she says. When she returned to Beloit, she majored in geology and landed her first few jobs in mineral exploration and field geology in Juneau, Alaska, where she continues to live and work in environmental consulting.