Higher Education

resetting the general education curriculum

At UB there are large plans underway to rethink how we deliver general education, and while I don't want to write here about my institution's specific plans (which to be honest aren't that specific yet), my own role as director of composition certainly has me thinking about these issues in new ways.

But first, some general observations about general education.

  1. The general perception is that students dislike gen ed courses and take them begrudgingly. In part, this seems to be because the courses appear uninteresting to them and/or not relevant to what they see as the purpose of going to college (i.e. getting a job). The other part is the way some of the courses are delivered in giant lecture halls, which understandably turn people off.
  2. Many students, at least at UB, at my previous institution, and I imagine elsewhere, are now taking gen ed courses at community colleges and then transferring the credit in. They do this mostly to save money, and it's hard for a university to compete if the students are also saving on housing costs. 
  3. From the university perspective the concern is that the courses are not really equivalent. As an undergrad advisor, I really saw students struggle with foreign language. In terms of composition, I think there are also issues. I should note when I say that that my wife taught at a community college for several years. She and many of her colleagues are great teachers. But their curriculum was not really equivalent to ours. It couldn't be because they are dealing with a very different student population. Simply put, we ask more of our students. 

Of course the larger question is whether or not any of this matters. That is, does it make a difference to the average junior/senior with a writing assignment in her major if she took fyc at a community college or placed out or took it at her university? I don't know the answer to that. Does it make a difference if you take Western Civ at a community college where perhaps less material is covered or at least the final is maybe easier? That is, if you took two UB grads from 2005 and asked them questions about Western Civ, would you be able to tell which one transferred in the credit?

The more nebulous and hence not measurable claim about general education is that it makes one a better person/citizen. Ok, maybe, who knows. 

I am willing to say this about general education. If a gen ed program was able to give students a solid understanding of world history, literature, philosophy, art, basic science, mathematics, writing/communication, and a language other than English, I would think that would be worthwhile. However, I don't think it is successful in doing those things. In order to be successful at doing those things, one would have to ask students to read a great deal, spend long hours discussing it, and then write. If one is interested in such an education, it can be had, mostly at private liberal arts colleges and maybe some elite public institutions. But honestly, students who are interested in this kind of education probably acquire a significant portion of it before entering college anyway. In any case, such an education is expensive and the average student has already demonstrated that cost is a primary factor (and who can blame them for that).

So here is my reset solution (not that it is all that original). As much as possible, give general education away for free. Universities will never be able to undersell community colleges; the savings on room and board alone are insurmountable. So take all the content and put it online for free. By my count UB requires 13 gen ed courses, including our two-semester writing sequence. So we're talking roughly about one year of coursework. There are certain things that I think can't be done online for free, specifically a lab experience, studio art (which would be optional at UB) and the mentoring of writing instruction. For the more content-driven curriculum, one might require students to pass some test, but I think there's a more interesting option.

One might create a 6-9 credit one-semester learning community where students are asked to produce a portfolio that demonstrates their general education competency. I pick this size as it would allow students to continue taking courses in theirs major as well. This might include lab reports, an art project, a humanistic research essay, and some other piece of media. I would say students need to have 12 credits before they take it (i.e not in their first semester) and need to complete it to get junior status. This gives them time to review the free online materials, which they will be expected to know. It also gives them time to take some introductory courses for their major. One of the tasks of those introductory courses would be to impress upon students the importance of a liberal arts education for success in their coursework and profession. The completed portfolios would be reviewed by both the faculty teaching in the community and faculty in the student's major.

I would then add an advanced writing in the disciplines course (300-level), which might be taught by writing faculty or by faculty in the disciplines, and a major-specific capstone course which might bring gen ed experiences back in at the end. I realize this might be tough: think about the kind of capstone English course that would revisit math or science. It could be done, for sure, but it wouldn't be typical.

In any case, I'm thinking something like this would solve several problems:

  1. It might connect general education more with a student's major, particularly if faculty in introductory major courses do the work of making some connections.
  2. It resolves the problems of giant gen ed lecture courses. Students may not retain as much information this way, but it is a question of cost/benefit, especially when students aren't taking the courses on your campus anyway.
  3. It might combat the trend of losing students to community colleges by giving students the opportunity to get right into the courses in their majors.

The question left open then is what does one do with the 10 or so courses that have been removed from the curriculum. Perhaps it does become possible for students to get a degree in three years or maybe a masters in 4-5 years since it now seems many more students are pursuing masters degrees. Or maybe it becomes easier for students to study abroad or double-major.

Of course the fundamental problem is when students come to college in search of a degree rather than an education, and their parents (or whomever is paying) is in search of ROI measured in terms of getting a job at the end. The thing is, as all the edupunkers point out, you don't need the degree; you need the education. Or at least that's how it should be.

The thing is… if you look at entry-level, BA/BS required jobs most of them don't really require much in specific education: marketing associate, research associate, recruiting associate, sales consultant, etc. All they are really looking for, I think, is someone who has demonstrated enough intelligence, maturity and focus to make it to the end of a college degree. Oh, and maybe good communication skills. The degree is really just a filter mechanism to make it more likely that a new hire would be able to handle the training that will follow being hired.

So this is the real problem with higher education right now. It is an increasingly cynical operation where no one is there for the right reason. Students want job preparation, but for the most part there really isn't anything specific they need, except to become more mature and responsible. Those who do need specific skills or experiences, like nurses or engineers, could probably get that training in a more direct route. But no one wants a 20 year-old nurse or engineer or high school teacher, and I think for good reasons.

The underlying problem then is thinking about education in a very different way than we have for a long time. Another post perhaps.