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The Ideal General Education Program (And Why Our Institutions Don’t Have One)

Curriculum Planning and Development

The Ideal General Education Program (And Why Our Institutions Don’t Have One)

For a number of reasons, including the publication of Rescuing Socrates, participating in a wonderful seminar on general education sponsored by the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities, and ongoing general education revision at my own institution, I have been spending a fair bit of time fantasizing about how the ideal general education program at a public university would be structured. It’s an unrealistic pursuit, of course, but as institutions of higher education rethink what our future structures, students, and curricula should be to continue to be of educational value to our communities, perhaps this is also the moment to rethink general education. It’s time to transform it from a suite of courses that students almost universally just want “to get out of the way” into an aspect of their university experience that they understand is providing them with the skills and predispositions they will need in the future.

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For a number of reasons, including the publication of Rescuing Socrates, participating in a wonderful seminar on general education sponsored by the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities, and ongoing general education revision at my own institution, I have been spending a fair bit of time fantasizing about how the ideal general education program at a public university would be structured. It’s an unrealistic pursuit, of course, but as institutions of higher education rethink what our future structures, students, and curricula should be to continue to be of educational value to our communities, perhaps this is also the moment to rethink general education. It’s time to transform it from a suite of courses that students almost universally just want “to get out of the way” into an aspect of their university experience that they understand is providing them with the skills and predispositions they will need in the future.

The first step in creating any academic program should be determining its learning outcomes. By the time students have completed a general education program that would consist of Integrative, Dynamic, Experiential, and Applied Learning (an IDEAL program, in short), they would possess the following:

  1.  The skills needed to
    1. participate responsibly in the democratic life of their communities;
    2. manage their finances, plan for their futures, and be able to seek trustworthy guidance on their financial planning;
    3. collaborate fully with other individuals, including those whose backgrounds, values, ethnicities, and countries of origin are different from their own, and understand the benefit to themselves and society of eliminating structural barriers to the full, inclusive, equitable participation of all members of a team, workgroup, or society; and
    4. adapt to change and recognize that they will need to be lifelong learners to have the most satisfying future possible.
  2. Sufficient knowledge about
    1. statistics and math so that they can figure out their taxes, how to finance major purchases (like a house), recognize when someone is trying to deceive them, be able to double-check cashiers, and calculate a tip in a restaurant without a calculator;
    2. the broad trajectory of world history (including US) and politics so that they have a context into which to place contemporary events and a foundation for future learning;
    3. the role that the arts (literary, visual, musical, and performative) play in developing empathy and an understanding of individuals, cultures, and historical frameworks different from our own;
    4. the scientific method and the natural world so that they can understand general discussions of scientific matters;
    5. technology and computing (including coding) so that they can adapt to future advances in these areas; and
    6. written and oral communication so that they can speak and write clearly, logically, and persuasively in both personal and professional contexts (including on social media).
  3. Curiosity about the world around them, its societies and structures, and its peoples. They should be ready to be “lifelong learners,” though that phrase has become stale. They should be ready to keep learning new skills and having new interests so that their lives are as interesting and satisfying to them at 75 as they are at 25.

Simple enough, and I doubt that many of my colleagues would have serious disagreement with the general goals of this IDEAL. These learning outcomes aren’t too different from the AAC&U essential learning outcomes. Our inability to create general education programs that approach this IDEAL at scale demonstrates that it is really a lack of will that leads to our shortcomings. It is our unwillingness to incur the costs—financial and political—of a strong, IDEAL program that prevents our large public institutions from reaching our goals.

The most important element to creating an IDEAL general education program is the manner in which it is taught. How the general education experience is delivered matters much more than the specific course content. To create the IDEAL, transformative general education program that develops students’ analytical skills, communication skills, and broad cultural and scientific awareness, we need a general education program that

Creating such a program at scale would transform the entire general education experience into a truly high-impact practice and stand a very good chance of achieving our goals of producing broadly knowledgeable, self-reflective citizens who are prepared to meet the societal challenges and technological changes the future will undoubtedly bring them. By creating community and active engagement in learning, it should support increased retention and graduation rates for all students, especially members of demographic groups who don’t readily volunteer to participate in high-impact practices.

What I am describing may resonate with what we typically think of as first-year seminars, but such courses need to extend beyond the first semester or the first year.

In an IDEAL program, students would take a general education course of the type I am describing during each term of their undergraduate careers. These courses could be taught by faculty who have been specially prepared to teach these courses, and they would move from foundational skills through capstone synthesis. The curriculum might look something like the table below, where each cell represents a four- to five-credit integrated general education course, identified by both the primary emphases of the course and (in blue) the learning outcomes that would receive the greatest emphasis during the semester. The IDEAL program would consist of 32–40 credits.

Fall Year 1
Writing, Math, Inclusivity
Communication, critical thinking, numerical literacy, collaboration, information literacy
Spring Year 1
Writing, Math, Inclusivity
Communication, critical thinking, numerical literacy, collaboration, information literacy
Fall Year 2
History and Culture
Information literacy, diversity awareness, critical thinking, collaboration, leadership
Spring Year 2
History and Culture
Information literacy, diversity awareness, critical thinking, collaboration, leadership
Fall Year 3
Science and Technology
Scientific reasoning, critical thinking, numerical literacy, collaboration, leadership
Spring Year 3
Science and Technology
Scientific reasoning, critical thinking, numerical literacy, collaboration, leadership
Fall Year 4
Preparing for the Future
Communication, critical thinking, numerical literacy, information literacy, diversity awareness, scientific reasoning, collaboration, leadership, professionalism
Spring Year 4
Preparing for the Future
Communication, critical thinking, numerical literacy, information literacy, diversity awareness, scientific reasoning, collaboration, leadership, professionalism

The primary text for the IDEAL program would be the weekly Sunday edition of the New York Times or another responsible news source, supplemented as appropriate by the occasional literary or primary text, scholarly article, film, or campus or community lecture or event. The students would be taught in two-semester cohorts of 20, and the same group of 20 students would have the same team of faculty teaching them for two semesters so that in each year of the program a community could form and relationships develop among the students and their general education faculty members. By the time students graduate, they would have completed eight semesters of increasingly in-depth explorations into the contemporary world. They would have conducted these explorations within a framework in which math, science, history, and culture have been brought together to help them explore topics through multiple disciplinary lenses—for example, the circumstances contributing to rises in sea levels, the implications of projected higher sea levels on particular communities and policies, and the methods used by those who calculate anticipated sea level increases. As they progress through their undergraduate educations, particularly during their senior year, students would be encouraged to see how they have been developing transferable skills that they may continue to strengthen after graduation.

The general education curriculum I am proposing is highly impractical at the scale of a large public university for a number of reasons. It is impractical because of decisions that we as a country and as institutions have made, decisions that reflect what we actually value within higher education. What we really value, I would argue, is the perceived needs of the faculty and not the education of the students. We can’t have an IDEAL system of general education at large public universities because of decisions we have made about policy and decisions we have made about appropriate levels of cost for general education.

Cost. If we assume an annual incoming class of 4,000 first-year students and teach IDEAL general education courses in sections of 20, then 200 IDEAL sections are needed for each class of students. That’s 800 sections per semester. If faculty are teaching three courses per semester, then approximately 266 faculty are needed to teach these courses. If we assume that these faculty earn approximately $60,000 each, then the faculty cost for the program is $16 million, excluding benefits.

This cost does not include the administrative costs of operating such a large program or the costs associated with the faculty development activities necessary to prepare the faculty to teach such a complex, integrated sequence of courses.

Space. Having 800 twenty-person classes running on campus each semester in addition to the other small courses a university typically runs (in languages, math, upper-division major courses, etc.) creates a logistical challenge. Assuming the courses are taught on a MWF, 50-minutes-per-session schedule, 80 additional classrooms will need to be found (or built). While some of these sections could be taught in an online or hybrid modality, thereby decreasing the number of rooms needed, the IDEAL program is designed to strengthen the on-campus community and the students’ sense of belonging.

These two simple, logistical considerations highlight the sheer improbability of being able to provide our students with the best possible general education. We must acknowledge that we have already decided that providing this kind of focused, intensive instruction by highly qualified faculty members is too expensive. We need to acknowledge that when we call it “too expensive,” we really mean that we do not believe that it is worth the cost, that we would rather spend our budgets on other aspects of the university.

If we exclude logistical and financial impediments to creating a general education program that relies on a vertical model of interdisciplinary courses embedded in all four years of a typical undergraduate curriculum, we must acknowledge that our current political and regulatory framework does not encourage such an approach.

Consider first state-level policies regarding transfer students. Because of extremely understandable concerns about the cost of higher education and transfer students’ ability to receive credit for coursework completed at previous institutions, state-level transfer regulations often control how institutions must handle credits students are transferring into a four-year institution. To cite just one example, in Alabama, the transfer of credits is governed by a state law that not only mandates that courses completed at one state public institution (two- or four-year) be eligible for transfer credit but that also created a committee to develop “a statewide freshman and sophomore level general studies curriculum to be taken at all colleges and universities.” In effect, to ensure that general education credits earned at two-year schools in the state will transfer for degree-applicable credit at state four-year schools, the approved general education curriculum in Alabama requires that all general education courses be courses that two-year schools offer. In Virginia, a more limited transfer requirement covers only about half of a typical general education requirement. To avoid subjecting transfer students to significantly increased course requirements (and costs) and creating a two-tiered system in which students who matriculate at an institution as first-year students are bound by more restrictive general education rules than their transfer classmates, the state’s public institutions feel pressure to limit general education coursework to the first and second year.

Pressure to encourage students to complete dual-enrollment courses while in high school—that is, courses that count toward both high school diploma requirements and university general education requirements—also inhibits institutions’ ability to create robust, integrated general education programs that provide a truly common experience for all their students. The growth of enrollment in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs further limits this ability. There is evidence, at least from my own institution, that completing dual-enrollment courses does not necessarily improve the likelihood of subsequent graduation from a four-year institution.

Regional accreditation requirements may also reinforce the disciplinary silos that encourage faculty to see general education courses from a territorial perspective rather than a student-focused one. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), for example, states that each accredited institution must have a general education program that

ensures breadth of knowledge. These credit hours include at least one course from each of the following areas: humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences, and natural science/mathematics. These courses do not narrowly focus on those skills, techniques, and procedures specific to a particular occupation or profession.

Such language encourages institutions to think of their gen ed programs in disciplinarily segmented ways, ensuring that every student will easily be able to meet these course distribution requirements. The SACSCOC language would force an institution wishing to implement the IDEAL curriculum to ensure that at least three semesters of the gen ed courses were less interdisciplinary than they would like. Under the SACSCOC criterion, for instance, even if students were asked to read and engage deeply with a novel or book of poetry or attend, study, discuss, and write about a visual art exhibition in each semester of the gen ed program, they would have failed to meet the requirement for completing a humanities or fine arts course.

Disciplinary silos and concerns over control of tuition revenue would also limit the possibility of creating the integrated, vertical program I am imagining. Bluntly put, disciplinary faculty want control of student credit hours because they want access to the revenue student tuition generates (at least under responsibility-centered management budgeting models). They also want the opportunity to use general education courses for recruiting students into their majors, thereby demonstrating the value of their discipline and the significance of their faculty.

Our campuses are forced to make some compromises because of politics and logistics, but we make others because we value faculty interests, specialized majors, and departmental budgets more than we value undergraduate general education. Like too many of our students, we want to push general education out of the way to focus on academic and intellectual matters we deem to be more interesting.

These compromises aren’t doing our students any favors.


Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.