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The Blue & Gray Press | October 22, 2017

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General education requirements take away from college experience

General education requirements take away from college experience

By AHMED KHOKAR

According to a report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, tuition rates will continue to increase by 6 percent, easily outpacing inflation rates.

This is particularly problematic because according to the Institute for College Access and Success, the value of college degrees is declining, the job market is as competitive as ever and student debt is at an all-time high at 1.2 trillion dollars.

For instance, tuition at the University of Mary Washington has increased by over $1,000 per semester since 2011. So, while politicians, administrators, lobbyists and consultants bicker about the most effective financial models, students are crippled with debt for decades beyond their college experience.

To add insult to injury, many higher education institutions have a myriad of general education requirements. Not only are students paying more for degrees that are less valuable, but they are also required to spend a significant portion of their time, money and energy into courses that they may not want or need to take.

Eliminating general education requirements would ease the burden on students significantly. It could potentially decrease tuition and the time spent in school, as well as help students focus more on hands on experiences.

At first glance, general education requirements look reasonable. Students should be getting out of their comfort zones and taking a few classes to explore their interests. However, in practice, students often have negative experiences with their general education requirements.

According to a report titled, “What do College Students Think about General Education and Assessment” by James Madison University, both students and professors had a low perceived value for general education courses. Students do not like taking these courses, and the professors do not like teaching them.

With the student population growing year after year, getting into classes that interest you while still fulfilling requirements becomes more difficult. Students are often left with limited options, which make positive experiences less likely.

At UMW, the general requirements include up to 20 courses, or 60 credits. That is about half of the overall credits required to graduate. These requirements range anywhere from intermediate foreign language mastery to quantitative reasoning. They become more manageable if students take courses that fulfill multiple requirements, but they still demand a significant portion of the typical student’s time at UMW.

However, we cannot deny that, for some students, general education requirements can be helpful in exploring various career paths. VIEWz

“The gen-eds can be good if you do not know what you want to do,” said Janelle Pierangelino, a junior at UMW double majoring in creative writing and communications.

However, students who have a general idea of what they want to study are given the short end of the stick.

“The gen-eds can slow you down when you’re trying to get into your major,” Pierangelino said. If students know what they want to study, they should be able to dive right in without the burden and additional stress of general education requirements.

“Reducing or getting rid of general education requirements would allow you to not be as stressed about each class. By having to take so many courses, it takes away from the enjoyment of each one,” said Pierangelino.

Not only would eliminating these requirements make the courses themselves more enjoyable, but it would also remove much of the stress from the scheduling and planning process. Students will be more enthusiastic about courses they choose rather than courses they are forced to take.

To accommodate students who are undecided about what to study, institutions could offer an optional minor, which would include some of the basic general education requirements. This would allow students to explore if they choose to, and it would also offer more variety and depth for students who want to specialize right away.

For students who choose not to incorporate this minor into their studies, it would potentially lower tuition through early graduation. Moreover, it would allow a smoother transition into graduate programs.

And, most of all, it would allow more time for students to work with faculty members through undergraduate research. The potential benefits are numerous. Institutions need to give the choice back to students. Surely, students should be trusted with this choice more than consultants and administrators who are more concerned about marketing rhetoric than the day to day experience of students.

Comments

  1. AnonymousProfessor

    In reporting his article, Khokar cites one junior but zero faculty members. Had he done a bit more work other than making blanket statements, he would find that the faculty, not the administration, is responsible for the GenEd requirements and that Mary Wash’s status as a liberal arts institution presupposes that substantial core requirements will be in place. In doing so, I would hope Khokar would find his way past the presumptive idea of student entitlement to realize that the faculty are skilled and competent with what makes for a strong education. However, should the University ever lose itself completely, I’m sure that entrusting course and degree design to undergraduate students with no formal training in such matters would be a fine idea.

  2. Ahmed Khokar

    Hi,

    I can understand where your concerns come from. I’m not suggesting that students have authority over professors in what they teach.I don’t think students should design all of the courses, and I don’t think my article implies that. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that “student entitlement” drives this article either. I believe students who pay several thousands of dollars to higher education institutions should have more of a choice about which classes they want to take. That is not entitlement, that is normalcy – and speaks to the troubled future of higher education institutions if they do not adapt.

    You don’t need formal training in education policy to understand and refine your own academic interests, in my opinion. All the students that qualified to come to UMW have an abundance of first hand experiences on which to base their interests in various areas of study.

    While we’re on the topic of formal training, it reminds me of another article I plan to write later this semester about the lack of formal training for professors as teachers and lecturers. If the assumption here is that formal training should be mandatory to prescribe requirements, shouldn’t that same standard apply to professors for teaching? Being an expert doesn’t necessitate being an effective teacher or professor.

    With regard to the last comment, yes I think the taxpayers and those responsible for your salary should have a say about whether or not they find the general education requirements to be useful for them. Any suggestion to the contrary would only be acceptable in higher education, which is troubling.

  3. AnonymousProfessor

    Hi Ahmed, and thanks for your reply. I hope that in your next article you’ll meet with the faculty who oversee the Teaching Center and also talk with Suzanne Sumner about the specific issues of teaching and learning, because those are real concerns. You are correct that not all faculty members possess the same abilities where classroom pedagogy is concerned.

    I hope that you’ll consider doing an article where you explore the fallacy of the consumer model of education, so that statements such as “the taxpayers and those responsible for your salary should have a say,” are clarified. You should also take a look at some of the sites that list the salaries of the faculty against that of administrative positions and see how despite the clear and sustained divide between them–not to mention the higher salaries for some disciplines (business, computer science, etc) who use something called “market rate” as a negotiation tactic–nevertheless do not keep the faculty from working to do their highest quality work in the classroom.

    I’m not disputing that a student should follow her interests at all; my comment was made to distinguish a core curriculum, that body of knowledge upon which the college faculty has reached the consensus that every student needs to share, as separate from a student’s major area of study. That’s part of a liberal arts education, but, more so, its composition does require experts, which students are not. GenEd requirements may seem like a waste, and if they’re taught poorly, they may well be, but if taught well, they form a foundation of knowledge out of which one major may thoughtfully and critically communicate with another.

    I look forward to your future articles.

  4. Ahmed Khokar

    I will definitely include a variety of perspectives in the next article. I wanted to include a few professor interview quotes in this article, but it made more sense to focus on the student perspective.

    I think execution is important when it comes to any course, not just general education requirements. I don’t think I implied that educators make disproportionately large amounts of money – I think they actually make a lot less than they should for the tasks they are taking on. I can see that from the perspective of an educator, the consumer model for education would be a “fallacy.” However, higher ed has and will continue to borrow from those models and incorporate them into public education (I would enjoy a conversation about the pros and cons of this). In some cases that can be effective, and this article reflects just one of many different opinions about general education requirements at UMW.

    While I understand that the label, “liberal arts,” comes with the expectation of a core curriculum – I still think it’s important for students to ask if / how they are benefiting from these general requirements. I also recognize that execution makes a big difference – but one of the points in the article addressed that partially. I think without general ed requirements professors and students would both be more enthusiastic about classes – and it would improve the experience for everyone involved. This is an extrapolation based on the research that I cited, which reflected that both students and professors disliked gen ed requirements at JMU. It’s still food for thought.

    I appreciate your comments and recommendations, and I’ll take them to heart. In fact, I’d love to chat or discuss some of your thoughts in a setting that allows for more depth and a lengthier discussion. But as far as this article goes, it’s just one opinion piece about a way to potentially improve the experience for students. I am open to a variety of perspectives, and I think it’s important that students get involved in these conversations.

    My email is

    Amkhokar@gmail.com

    Feel free to contact me any time to discuss further or offer your perspective.

  5. Pepper D.

    My chosen topic for my English 122 class is in regards to streamlining college education by removing unnecessary classes, like required general education courses. The piece above struck home, perfectly laying out the opinion of frustrated students like myself who want nothing more than to hurry up and get their degree without spending so much time working on what I like to call “fluff classes.” As I often state when ranting about this topic “a future mechanic doesn’t need to study ancient civilizations to fix a car.”
    As stated above, around half of the credits we earn are from general education. This is because colleges have based their course requirements around what is called a core model. A core model is a structured list of classes that must be taken in order to reach a specific goal. The core model is applied to nearly all degrees, and is not very flexible. As such, many students find themselves taking classes required by the core model that are not required to understand their major. Fluid models, which are mostly employed by private colleges, allow students more freedom in choosing their classes and thereby streamlining their education. Rather than spending two of their four years on general education courses, they are able to trim the prerequisite courses to about one year. Vocational colleges are colleges with a focus on educating students specifically for their career, rather than for educations sake. As such, the graduation rate is much faster, and there is less “fluff” associated. Removing unnecessary course requirements will allow student to graduate faster.

    (This piece was written as an assignment for my English 122 class. Please do not remove until after 12/07/16 so that I may receive full credit for this assignment. Thank you very much.)