Is college about producing well-rounded citizens or graduates with job skills?

Alma Washington is another one of the talented college interns working at the AJC this summer. She is a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studies interactive multimedia journalism and creative writing. She is interning in the audience department at the AJC.

In this piece, Washington looks at general education or gen ed classes, courses required of students regardless of major so they’ll emerge well-rounded. Schools impose “distribution requirements” to ensure their students sample an array of courses to satisfy the gen ed mandate.

When you read college statements defending gen ed, you see very big ideals, such as “To prepare our students for lives of significance and worth.” Or, “To provide a framework for learning that empowers adult learners to be informed and active citizens in a pluralistic society.”

Despite those noble goals, many students regard gen ed as something to get out of the way as soon as possible. There is a debate underway about whether students should be bound by someone else’s checklist of what they ought to know to succeed in life.

Today, Washington adds her voice to the discussion.

By Alma Washington

In the ever-changing job market, some tech firms are starting to value learned skills rather than college degrees, and I’m sure other industries aren’t far behind.  As someone who’s approaching her last year in college, I’ve been thinking about my time at the University of North Carolina, the classes I’ve taken and what skills I’ll have learned by the time I graduate.

To graduate from UNC, you need at least 120 credit hours on your transcript. My journalism major is 39 credit hours. My two minors are 15 credit hours each, which brings me to 69 credit hours between my major and minors. This means a little less than half of my college career has gone to what are called general education classes, a collection of credits required by all majors for a degree under the premise that students need a broad knowledge base beyond their field of study.

Students can choose what general education classes they take within the designated disciplines. This usually includes the math, science, English and history quartet that students are used to from high school, with some arts and philosophy classes added into the mix. College was touted as a land of choice and opportunity, a reprieve from the repetitive and strict nature of high school. So why are students forced to spend precious time and money taking classes that often have nothing to do with their major and career interests?

I’ll admit, I’ve had some great general education classes. After watching the controversial “Memoirs of a Geisha,” I took a class on Japanese geisha and explored a subject I knew nothing about. On the other hand, I’ve had some experiences I could’ve easily skipped. My introductory biology class required an expensive textbook, and I walked away knowing little more than the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.  

Alma Washington is a rising senior at the University of North Carolina.

Students should be required to take classes in subjects and departments outside of their major so they have the chance to tap into the numerous options colleges and universities offer. Having a little extra knowledge never hurts.

The debate around general education requirements boils down to whether colleges are supposed to teach students how to be “well-rounded,” or equip them with tangible skills that will help them secure a job.

I don’t see why colleges can’t do both, but I don’t agree with the model that most colleges follow.  A fellow intern introduced me to the “open curriculum” program that some schools are using as a compromise on general education requirements. Amherst College and Brown University, for example, give students total freedom in the classes they take outside of their major.

Learning about this student-choice approach led to a rush of fantasies about what college would have been like had I enjoyed greater freedom in my class schedule. There are so many classes, both in and out of my department, that I want to take because they align with my interests and goals, but I won’t have time because of UNC’s gen ed requirements.

Under the open curriculum program, I could have tailored my choices to my major, providing myself with unique and different courses that would teach me skills relevant and useful to my main course of study. I also would’ve been able to avoid classes that I only took for graduation credit and left no long-lasting impression.

I understand that general education requirements seek to provide students with communication and critical thinking skills that employers want. But when I review my college career, it wasn’t those general ed classes that provided me with these skills. It was the jobs, internships and extracurricular activities that taught me lessons I could never learn inside a classroom.

Opponents of the open curriculum model argue students can misuse this freedom to avoid venturing out their comfort zone and challenging themselves, which is one of the things college is supposed to help us do. That’s a valid concern, but students can still avoid challenge now. Whenever it’s nearing class registration time, UNC Facebook groups are flooded with posts asking what the easiest classes are that will fulfill certain requirements. Rate My Professors is a popular site on which students rate professors and classes on overall quality and level of difficulty. Where there’s a will to take the easy way out, there’s a way.

I love UNC, and wouldn’t trade being there for anything, but I wish my school embraced an open curriculum program. Allowing students the independence to take control over their own education is what college should be about. With the general ed model, students will just have to make the best of whatever situation they find themselves in, which, at the end of the day, is a valuable skill to have.

Reader Comments 0

14 comments
jerryeads
jerryeads

I wish so too, Alma. I spent the last five years of my career hopefully helping aspiring teachers think about what they were getting themselves into (I'm an education policy wonk who had the honor to play college professor for a bit). 

One of the more common frustrations I heard from my students was the rush-rush lock-step race on the treadmill of courses Georgia requires in its public university teacher prep programs. My guess is that tech school welding programs have more flexibility. My colleagues of course were (and still are) completely dedicated to producing the best teachers they can, as is the university system. Over my career as a statistician, testing "expert", researcher and college teacher, I watched MANY reforms put in place to try to "improve teachers." Rarely was any research ever either undertaken or utilized to guide the changes. Almost always the changes were "we need more of (whatever)," which is why teacher prep programs are leaning toward five years, not four.

But while it's hard to argue against the significant increase in actual practice teaching, I can't help but think that we'd get better human beings if we'd let them think a bit more about what they'd like to think about.

segower
segower

It's an interesting, multifaceted topic. Maybe the key is to provide students with lots of institutional and curricula choices: the spam-like core/major combination; a more globally oriented liberal arts education (with a focus on life-long skills such as critical thinking, deep reading/comprehension, ethics and public leadership); nimble technical skills-based curricula; and plenty of short-term, affordable continuing education opportunities to help folks stay afloat in times of rapid and disruptive technological change. It's that variety of choice that might help meet the needs, interests and aptitudes of individual students and of our society, economy and culture.

Starik
Starik

One thing you should get from college is to polish your reading, writing and to a degree speaking skills. You should also be able to analyze various points of view, and solve problems.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

That is what grad school is all about, Ms. Washington.  Undergrad is for getting a foundation in the ideas and history and skills you will need.  In grad school there will be an opportunity to tailor to your interests, to a larger degree.  


An undergrad degree opens the door to foundational ideas and skills.  It also had the happy byproduct of fostering the ideals of citizenship, healthy living, and other more amorphous qualities.  People who graduate from college (unless they choose a more restrictive intellectual one), report higher volunteerism, voting, continuing educational advancement, and other measures that lead to a more happy, successful life.  See "How College Affects Students," a weighty tome by Pascarella and Terrenzini, for a meta analysis of this.


We can't truthfully say students get the foundational ideas in high school; one look at the current voting decision patterns will certainly disabuse you of this idea.

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady Absolutely correct. There's always law school as well. Any kind of major will do for that. And you definitely don't need Latin.

weetamoe
weetamoe

Ah, yes. "My Culture and My Life," would be a logical choice, would it not?

Babycat
Babycat

There are a lot of students that change their majors at least once, especially after taking one or two of the courses related to their major.  Ensuring that students have a good basis for any major is probably the primary concern.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Remember when there was a PE requirement?  That was great.  Bowling.  Archery.  Backpacking the Cohutta.  Snow skiing in Boone NC.   Screwed up and took weightlifting from a coach who must have been an ex-Marine Drill Instructor.  God, that was a nightmare.


With the cost of tuition nowadays, going to school to become "well rounded" is a luxury we can no longer afford.  Instead of spending money on World Lit and Sex in the 21st Century, science and business graduates need a couple of semesters of spreadsheets.

If becoming "well rounded" is a goal, let them take a semester on how to keep a checkbook and compound interest.


But then, what would all those History and Philosophy Phd's do?

Q1225
Q1225

@Lee_CPA2  You couldn't balance a checkbook or calculate compound interest before college?  Does your manager at H&R Block know that?

segower
segower

@Lee_CPA2 Surely, we need some folks who know a bit about history; about, say, the American Revolution, the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in the 20th century, the Second World War, and so on, and who can pass that knowledge on?

segower
segower

@Q1225 @Lee_CPA2 I suspect you guys are not entirely serious here, but yes the point is that there's so much basic stuff that kids should be learning in HS. If they did then we could cut undergraduate degrees from 4 to 3 years, and save students and their parents about 25% in the cost of college attendance.


bu22
bu22

I think college should be more than a trade school.  Taking the core requirements 1) connects you with students in other majors, whose different mode of thinking helps you understand your own, as in your last couple of years, you rarely get outside your college; 2) gives you knowledge of different areas that helps you become a better citizen; and 3) forces you outside your comfort zone.  Reality is that your major gives you a base and enables you to function in your first job, but much of what you learn you will learn once you are in the workforce.  And it is necessary to continue your education throughout your career.  That extra course in your major will probably be obsolete in a few years.  Finally, most students change majors.  Having a core helps them figure out what they want to do without wasting a lot of courses getting there.