Rethinking General Education: Too Many Options?

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Series: Costs Down, Quality Up

Historically, initiatives to improve quality have also meant added cost—smaller class sizes, more faculty who conduct research, etc.—but this is no longer a sustainable model for all institutions. What are the innovations that can actually drive the cost to educate a student lower while driving critical outcomes like student success and completion higher? This series offers provocative questions that challenge the cost-quality paradigm and the old ways of managing institutional strategy and growth.

Also in this series:
Why Good is Still the Enemy of Great for Most Colleges and Universities

After a visit to a university campus, I received the following inquiry from one of its academic leaders:

Bob, when you visited, you mentioned that we have too many GE course options. We are taking a look at this. What are the advantages of decreasing the number of options? Is this a resource question? What if the course is part of a major? Is there a problem including it as a GE distribution as well?

This inquiry deserves a serious response and, as it also affects academic sensibilities on other college and university campuses, I thought I’d write a fuller response. In this article, I will speak briefly to:

  1. Why general education is critical
  2. Why general education has gone astray
  3. Why this is an issue of resources, not just quality
  4. Specific, practical suggestions for reviewing the general education curriculum

1. Why General Education is Critical

Bob Dickeson photoTo me, nothing is more important to undergraduate education than the general education program. Known by various names (general studies, liberal studies, etc.) it is indeed the core of what we are trying to accomplish with a quality baccalaureate degree.

With the trend toward greater careerism and the increasing stress on students to focus on majors, minors (and often dual majors) in order to become more employable, we need a more academically responsible general education program to keep both our students and our institutions centered on what’s important.

A meandering, sloppy, ill-conceived smorgasbord of curricular stuff is not quality general education. It is neither purposeful nor coherent. By exploring various college catalogues and reviewing the general education requirements therein, one can see an astonishing range of choices—in some cases dozens or even scores of possible courses—that would meet a single general education sub-objective. If we were constructing a boat using such disparate timbers, it would sink for lack of integrity.

Such an approach insults the student: “In your major, we will give you breadth, depth, sequence, meaning, and cohesion. In your general education, by contrast, anything goes.”

2. Why General Education Has Gone Astray

Historically, colleges and universities took special care with their core. It was, after all, the essence of what they were about. A collection of specific courses, often interdisciplinary or integrative in nature, constituted what a student needed to become an “educated person.”  Specifics varied by institution but generally sought—through purposeful curriculum design—to assess competence in written, communication and computational skills, and to achieve the four tenets of higher education: transmitting the civilization, liberating the individual, teaching how to think, and teaching values.

In the recent past, a fierce competition for scarce resources among academic departments has meant that faculty members now try to offer more and more courses in order to justify their positions and their discipline’s existence. This ongoing battle for the favor of the institution’s student credit hours has resulted in general education creep:

  • On many campuses I will find academic rules that set the maximum number of credits required for a major, only to find a dozen programs or so that require 150 percent of the limit, a practice that is neither honest nor academically justifiable.
  • Many institutions have policies that the baccalaureate degree can be achieved within 120 credits and four years of full-time work; only to then permit some departments to exceed those limits with localized exceptions, add-ons, and specialized deals that smack more of campus politics than concern for the student.
  • An egregious extension of the creep principle is the notion that any course can be offered for major, minor, general education or elective credit. This practice strips general education of any meaning and leaves the student with an assumption that all intellectual parts must somehow be interchangeable.

3. Why This is an Issue of Resources, Not Just Quality

General education creep is expensive. What might have been considered a peripheral luxury item before (offering a groaning buffet table with excessive course choices) should now be seen as a waste of precious resources.

Academic departments proliferate their general education offerings in the absurd belief that by doing so more students will be produced. The truth is there are only so many students to go around.  Instead, the question should be: How many quality general education courses should we offer to mount a distinguished program?

In practice, 80% of students typically enroll in less than 20% of general education offerings. Query: What is the cost of sustaining this unnecessary balance?

Exemplary general education programs around the country have been redefined and offer students reasonable choices among well-thought-out distribution components, often organized around a common theme, social issue, or intellectual emphasis. By focusing on quality, such institutions have simultaneously addressed curricular coherence and resource utilization issues.

4. Additional, Specific Suggestions

  1. General education courses should be designed and offered solely for that purpose. Such courses should not be counted for major/minor purposes (and vice versa). A course designed with general education purposes in mind cannot meet the standards expected of a quality major/minor course.
  2. Today’s student should acquire a general education whose courses are interdisciplinary in nature and assist the student in integrating important connections among disparate fields of study.
  3. An increasing number of four-year graduates are initiating their collegiate experiences at two-year institutions  and transferring their general education courses—often as a block—into their baccalaureate programs. This means that the student does not benefit from exposure to the liberal arts and sciences faculty of the degree-granting institution, no matter the intended major. This too seems a waste of available intellectual resources.
  4. Because general education is so important, particularly to the integration of knowledge at the end of a student’s degree, an upper-division component should be included.  This component would feature specially-designed, interdisciplinary courses available for junior/senior level general education credit only.  A typical approach would be for a general education requirement of 42 credits, 30 at the lower-division, and 12 at the upper division levels.

General education is too important to be denatured by excessive courses that expose a lack of careful curriculum management.