US universities must resist pressure to cut gen ed requirements

It is easy to be consumed by the daily addressing of students’ needs but, for their sake, faculty need to hold the line, say Colleen Wynn and Elizabeth Ziff 

August 6, 2023
A fist and hands making a scissor shape, symbolising resisting cuts
Source: iStock

The cost of US higher education has undeniably skyrocketed. The average total cost of attendance at public and private universities increased more than two and a half times between 1979-80 and 2021-22. This increase has emerged with the simultaneous implementation of the customer model of higher education – and that ultimately puts education in a bind.

The customer model of higher education allows for narratives to be perpetuated about individual dissatisfaction rather than systematic disinvestment in higher education. Instead of embracing proposals like College For All, Bernie Sanders’ free-college plan, many politicians focus on supposed value for money and push the message that courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences are not valuable.

Student dissatisfaction has also been fuelled by an increased politicisation of higher education, centred on attacks on critical race theory, gender studies, Black studies and other similar fields. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 36 per cent of adults in the US have faith in higher education.

This messaging leads students to complain when they are required to take these supposedly low-value or activism-centred courses, even merely as part of their general education requirements. And in an effort to keep their “customers” happy, universities respond by cutting these requirements – which means that students never get introduced to these fields and don’t learn their value, further exacerbating the problem.

For the sake of institutions and students alike, we must break this vicious circle. The general education curriculum, on which we both teach, helps students make connections between disciplines, cultivates marketable skills and teaches critical thinking. Hence, cutting general education poses threats to education, retention and employability.

Employers value college degrees because they teach a breadth of skills and prepare students for the workplace. It is estimated only about 36 per cent of people work in the field they majored in and that workers will have approximately 12 different jobs in their lifetimes. That demands that students be familiar with as many different disciplines as possible; narrowing the curriculum will do future workers and employers a grave disservice.

Indeed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, at least 80 per cent of college students change their majors at least once and the average student changes their major three times. If they have only taken courses within their current major, they won’t know what else to do and may drop out of school. However, if they have taken general education courses, they may have already found another field they are good at and/or passionate about – they can then “parachute” into this major.

The benefits of general education extend beyond the effects on individual lives and institutions. Higher education, and a general liberal arts education in particular, have a direct impact on the health and livelihood of democracy. Researchers at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that higher education can mitigate authoritarian tendencies by promoting independent thought, respect for diversity and the ability to decipher evidence.

Of course, to be the strongest retention tool possible, general education requirements must be continually assessed and revised to meet student current needs. But cutting requirements is not the same as revising them.

And while financial and even political concerns can’t be ignored, they shouldn’t steer the conversation. College degrees are more than certifications. They designate a broad training in the liberal arts through a general education curriculum. It matters for nurses to understand history, business majors to know about art and music, English majors to have scientific literacy, engineers to know about other languages and cultures and sociologists to learn about literature and poetry.

Fellow faculty, we cannot be distracted by political rhetoric. It is easy to become consumed by the day-to-day addressing of students’ needs and their teaching, scholarship and service responsibilities, making it difficult to stay vigilant. But, as guardians of curricula, we must protect general education from further consolidation and erasure.

In particular, those of us who understand the benefits of general education have a responsibility to educate others. We must forge connections with colleagues across campus and learn about each other’s courses and the skills they teach students. By forging these connections and building solidarity, we will be better able to defend general education.

Our students deserve the same opportunities to learn that we – and the politicians attacking gen ed courses – benefited from.

Colleen E. Wynn and Elizabeth Ziff are assistant professors of sociology and co-directors of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis.

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Reader's comments (3)

So fascinating in terms of different countries having very different interpretations of just what is ‘higher’ about Higher Education that the theme of this interesting article is totally irrelevant to the debate about their HE systems in the UK and in many other OEDD nations. I agree that the development of critical-thinking needs to be a part of HE but it can and should be inculcated within the proper teaching of any subject/discipline in a University. That is the message in my ‘The Oxford Tutorial’ (Palfreyman, editor; Amazon, 2019); it should not need special courses, and still less ‘activism-centred’ courses (the latter presumably being a red rag to the DeSantis/Republican bull in the USA and one factor in the growing disenchantment of the US public with what goes on in American HE?).
Where have you been since the 1980s? You are at least three decades too late with this call
With respect to comment 1): a critical issue is the second education--college prep systems in different nations