by Autumn Dickson

General Education. I don’t think I know a single student from my list of college friends who liked the idea of their general education requirements. I know plenty of people who may have enjoyed a class here or there. But as a broad rule, most students would still skip their core classes if they felt that it wouldn’t hinder future job opportunities by barring them from receiving a degree.  

Let’s take a look at a couple of numbers before delving into the usefulness/complaints regarding general education requirements.

The average cost per credit in an American university is a whopping $594.46. Considering the fact that general education requirements often take up ⅓ to ½ of your degree, students are looking at taking anywhere from 42-60 credits of GE requirements. On the low end of these averages, students are looking at paying $24,967.32 for their general education. On the high end, they are facing up to $35,667.60. This is completely disregarding any extra fees that come with these core classes such as student loan interest and textbooks. That is simply the cost of tuition for general education courses.

So what’s so important about these classes and why do colleges require them? Are general education requirements worth it? Are they practical in our day and age when jobs are highly specialized and students are looking to minimize debt in an inflated economy? Essentially, are we asking students to shoot themselves in the foot?

Perhaps not.

The Why of General Education Courses

Most of the general education courses a student will be taking come from a series of disciplines. Students will need to take English classes, math classes, science classes, humanities, and music classes. Many professors are becoming increasingly concerned with the fact that students don’t seem to understand the necessity of being educated in different subjects. Why should an aspiring English teacher take algebra and biology? Why might an accountant need music history?

Direction

There are a couple of basic reasons that college websites for GE requirements often cite. Math, at its best, teaches problem-solving. English can teach communication. Biology can teach appreciation. This may sound like wishful thinking when you compare it to the responses you often find from college students. But these are important considerations. Studies are showing that high school graduates are showing up to college for their freshman year less prepared than ever. A lot of these “side skills” that hopefully come as a result of these classes have been skimmed over in high school. Many students are showing up without a ton of direction on where they want to start on their career paths. And core classes can often offer valuable insight into a student’s strengths and interests. It gives a little bit of direction when a student might not have any, to begin with.

Fresh Perspective

Students can also be introduced to new schools of thoughts and perspectives. They can be introduced to students who aren’t like them. This can be incredibly useful considering the fact that walking into a class of accounting majors and then into a class of English teachers are going to have very different personality types. This school of thought reflects back to the idea that college is where students go for personal development in comparison to job training. When we’re looking at personal development, anyone will agree interacting with people of all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives is healthy and beneficial. It is not a bad thing to be challenged beyond your paradigms when trying to seek personal improvement. Perhaps the point of GE requirements extends beyond that of job training.

The Argument Against General Education Courses

Now for the argument against core classes. You’ll often find that those paying for the general education courses have plenty of complaints against them. While those getting paid for general education courses are all for them. Here’s just a couple of complaints I’ve come across besides the astronomical tuition costs for classes that won’t train you for your specific job.

Students’ “Get It Over With Attitude”

Demotivated students sitting in a lecture hall with one girl napping in college

Students have a “get it over with” attitude regarding these core classes anyway. You will find this kind of perspective rampant among college freshman as well as seniors who have put off their general education requirements until the end of their college career.

Perhaps they’ve kept a couple of fun facts from a history class, or they got some extra practice writing a paper for an English class, but most of it doesn’t stick anyway. Students will go in, do the work, cram for a test, and then lose the knowledge the second they walk out of the testing center. To them, they’re just paying their dues to get that degree at the end of four years. The knowledge isn’t sticking because they aren’t interested. So is it really worth making them pay all that money to take a test? Our universities seem to think so. Then again, our universities are getting paid.

From personal experience, I’ve also found that even with general education classes I liked, the amount of information I’ve been able to retain over the years has diminished greatly. One such example was political science. I remember the professor, and I remember having a lot of respect for him. I didn’t grow up in a family that paid much attention to politics. And it had never really interested me before. I remember loving the class and feeling a sense of awe at our imperfect, and yet impressive American government. I remember feeling inspired. Unfortunately, that’s about all I remember and I loved the class. I ask you to take a guess about what I remember from general education classes I didn’t like.

General Education Classes Will Not Necessarily Make Students Interested

You’ll often hear that students need to be well rounded and that can only come from taking classes in different disciplines. Let me try giving you a specific example. I’m going to be a little stereotypical here, but please understand I’m just making an example. Let’s say we have a math major who comes to college and finds himself stuck in a music history class. One argument I’ve found a million times over from universities and professors is that students need to be able to appreciate the arts. It’s important for society, and I completely agree with this opinion. I play a couple of instruments and sing. So trust me, I find it incredibly important for people to find an appreciation for art.

General education

Also trust me when I say that my music appreciation did NOT come from my music history class. If anything, it just drove me away from it. I can tell you that a lot of my fellow students felt the same way. Students are already required to take a certain amount of music in high school. And if they didn’t find a particular affinity for it then, why would a music history class change that later?

Students have already been “introduced” to a lot of these subjects and experiences growing up. The general education classes are just going to drive them further into debt without any of the desired outcomes from the professors. The younger generations don’t put up with it as well as older generations (possibly because of rising costs). Students in this day and age want a reason why. And they’re not finding it for a lot of their classes.

Low Number of Students Who’d Discover Interest in Subjects Thru GE

Another argument in favor of general education requirements is that students can often be introduced to subjects they never thought they’d be interested in. I believe that number is miniscule. Most students who have taken the initiative to attend college have some basic ideas of their likes and dislikes even if they don’t know the exact direction they want to take for their lives. I’m sure there are people out there who changed their career path because they took a general education class that inspired them, but I believe that number is so relatively low that it’s impractical to require all students to take some of these unnecessary courses.

I think a more common occurrence is for students to take a general education course that already aligns with some interests that they were aware of. For example, a student may be required to take biology as a general education course. And they may go on to major in biology. However, they were probably already somewhat aware of this interest. Why is this important? Because even if this biology student wasn’t required to take biology for a general education course, and if this biology student wasn’t quite sure what direction to take off in, they probably would have taken the introductory course and pursued it regardless. There’s no need to take so many required courses in so many different disciplines. It’s impractical and expensive.

Wishful Thinking

general education

Just for some wishful thinking, I feel like there are a couple of options that could really fix some of the problems we’re facing without sacrificing a well rounded education. Obviously, we need basic standards of writing and math, but if a student can come in and test out of these classes, why is it so necessary to pay $20,000 to prove it? If they are capable of basic arithmetic and algebra and can prove it on a comprehensive final, why can’t we let them move on to their music major?

Another option to help fix our general education problems would be to simply revamp the requirements. Music history isn’t going to help anyone love music. It might help them with their temporary memory abilities for tests. But that’s about as far as those classes can take a student. We can give students a couple of general education requirements to make sure they meet some basic guidelines. But to have these classes take up to ⅓ to ½ of their degree is preposterous.

The last option I’ll discuss here is to make the classes more specialized. If we have student going into accounting, is there any way we can find a way to incorporate more writing assignments in comparison to taking a completely separate class? There are ways to prove that our students are literate and communicative without requiring 2-3 English classes costing a couple thousand dollars.

There are some good points to make regarding general education courses, but the requirements are just excessive. Perhaps the students would be more willing and appreciative of the knowledge from different disciplines if it didn’t require so much sacrifice financially.

Things for a Student to Consider

As a last piece of advice regarding general education courses, don’t be ashamed to look up your local community college options as well as online options as a replacement for general education courses at a four-year university. Consider the fact that the average cost for a semester at a community college is $3,260 a semester. While the average cost for a four-year university is $8,900. It’s just something to think about. Sticking at home (not paying rent either!) to knock your generals out of the way before heading off to pay bigger amounts of money for more specialized classes is not a bad idea. There’s no shame in attending a community college, and there’s also potentially a lot less debt. The same goes for online classes which can often be far cheaper.

If this is something you want to look at doing, make sure to look at which general education courses will transfer easily to your four year university of choice. It’s a little ridiculous but if your calculus course at your community college was three credits, and the calculus requirement at the four year university you want to attend is four credits, you may end up having to take calculus again. Most colleges have transfer student guides that will help you navigate which classes will directly translate. Take community college courses (even during high school) with your four year university in mind.

Sources

https://studentloanhero.com/featured/cost-per-credit-hour-study/

https://www.usnews.com/education/community-colleges/paying/articles/2014/06/24/5-costly-financial-aid-mistakes-community-college-students-make

https://getunbound.org/blog/what-exactly-is-general-education

https://www.collegexpress.com/articles-and-advice/majors-and-academics/articles/college-academics/general-education-requirements-whats-point/

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