Gen Eds - Are They Worth It?

Many of us have a bias about General Education. We naturally think if it is “general” and not specialized or specific, General Education is somehow “less than.” Every program of study in higher education involves the completion of a series of courses called “General Education (GenEd)” requirements. There has been much controversy of late about whether General Education requirements should, in fact, be required. So the question then becomes: if these classes are “required” does General Education have value?

It is my position that GenEd courses have value beyond their name. These broader learning opportunities maintain a direct relationship to analytical understanding and give us insight into what things mean.

Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University wrote in an a recent Inside Higher Education article: “A lot of potential students are being asked to take general education requirements for half the time it takes to achieve their degree and then receive the training that directly corresponds to the career they want. The people would rather just get the job training done and thus turn away from college.”

On the flipside, a 2013 study completed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) noted that 91 percent of employers are looking for employees to take on more responsibilities and have in place a broader set of skills, intuition and creativity than in the past. In other words, recent grads need to know more than just the specific skills required to work in their fields. In addition, 88 percent of employers said that to succeed in the workplace, employees need higher levels of learning and broader knowledge than they did in the past. And an incredible 93 percent of employers consider communication, critical thinking and problem solving capacity more important to long-term career success than a job applicant’s major.

Employers today require the whole package when looking for people to hire and join their teams. They want people who possess knowledge beyond the skills needed to perform particular tasks for their job. They want individuals who have developed intangible skills not necessarily listed as part of a certificate or degree. GenEd courses cultivate creative thinking, the ability to convey information effectively to others, problem-solving abilities and an understanding of global issues, cultures and perspectives.

College of DuPage and our colleagues across higher education provide GenEd requirements as the building blocks of a curriculum for both degree-seeking and transfer students. Taking courses outside a person’s core area of study opens a world of knowledge to learners, enabling them to make decisions, act ethically, interact with a team of diverse people and communicate ideas effectively in writing and in conversation.

We are not islands. We are connected to this world and to each other. General education – or “general experience” – courses provide students with an understanding of the importance of working across diverse backgrounds and ideas. Teamwork is a cornerstone of general studies courses that introduces students to others outside their core field of study and opens them up to new ideas and the concept of compromise as a way to get the best result. GenEds often helps students do some discovering. This is an often overlooked benefit at community colleges in particular, where taking a few courses in different areas or fields doesn’t break the bank. GenEd courses can help students uncover passion for a field of study and/or the discovery of a new talent for a profession they might otherwise have missed.

With the value of GenEds in mind, there is a movement toward changing the delivery of these courses to make the subject matter more appealing and applicable. This fall, for example, students at COD completed English, political science and speech requirements by enrolling in a course called “Decision 2016.” Contemporary Life Skills classes are also currently available in Automotive Services Technology for non-majors, and Earth Science credits can be earned in meteorology/storm chasing, hydrology and oceanography, astronomy or geology courses.

In addition, cohorts of student Learning Communities at COD focus on two or more courses connected by a common theme. Examples include “Cruise the Caribbean,” a virtual cruise that satisfies GenEd requirements in mathematics, physical science, and social and behavioral science. Service Learning courses, which combine community service with classroom teaching, are also available to fulfill GenEd requirements in sociology, English, health science, humanities and speech.

A 2017 publication generated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities provides a series of case studies that reflect the “real world” application of students’ cumulative learning through signature work projects that focus on developing students and connecting their knowledge and skills across broad and specialized study. The AACU defines liberal education as “ broad and in-depth knowledge, the capacity to integrate and apply learning to new situations, and the intellectual creativity and resilience to face challenges.”

While the term GenEd requirements is useful for the mechanics of scheduling courses, there is a value proposition missing from this terminology. Instead, based on the intrinsic and often surprising outcomes that result from this type of learning, we should think about General Education differently. These courses more accurately comprise “Capstone Education,” reflecting the ability of these courses to unlock the potential of the whole person, motivating each of us to learn more than what our assumptions provide and to know more and grow more throughout our lives.

Dr. Ann Rondeau is the President of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Portions of this article ran previously in the Daily Herald in Illinois.

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