General requirements provide the academic breadth necessary to be competitive in an increasingly globalized and technological world. Students today are competing with their college cohort in addition to individuals across the world. The increase in job competition and economic instability leads students to disproportionately select career-oriented majors. In juxtaposition, universities requiring courses in the natural sciences have decreased by about 60 percent since the 1960s. Preparing students for a specific job rather than providing fundamental critical analysis and independent thinking skills is detrimental to students who must compete on a level unseen prior to modern technological advances. A core curriculum that requires basic courses in the natural sciences, mathematics, social sciences and the humanities is essential in providing the higher level skills that will prepare students for a competitive work environment. School administrators must not forget that in a global and technology-based economy one’s job is easily replaced by deindustrialization, automation, outsourcing or better trained and educated individuals from the United States or abroad. Through general education requirements educators can provide the essential high-level thinking necessary to be a versatile and in-demand job candidate.
In addition, general requirements can be used to reduce the academic performance gap of first-generation students. Individuals who are the first in their family to attend college may not know which courses are vital to receive an undergraduate degree, prepare for a “real-world” job or graduate school. Core courses can serve as a foundation for the academic and cultural knowledge instrumental for students (particularly for those with limited college exposure) to improve social networks, have a common knowledge base, and place first-generation students on par with students from a higher socioeconomic status. As education scholar Paula Zeszotarski notes, general education requirements are essential, “lest the gulf between the social classes… be accentuated as…the elite group learns to control their environment, while the lower classes are given career education and training in basic skills.” General requirements can clear the fog for students unfamiliar with the college environment.
Some students argue against the impracticality of a strict general requirements program because it is too academic and does not prepare students for the careers they will have after college. St. John’s College is a renowned example of a strict core curriculum which pre-selects Western tradition courses for the majority of a student’s college experience. The greatest challenge inherent in a specialized core curriculum is that students generally prefer choice in course selection. Even though universities with strict general education requirements may not be ideal for most students, research has yet to show whether students attending such universities have greater advantage or disadvantage in the job market. An ideal core curriculum will provide students with an academic foundation that provides general skills applicable to any employment opportunity. Students may not be sufficiently prepared for diverse thought in a globalized world under a strict core curriculum. Universities must balance specific career preparation with broad academic knowledge and skills.
In contrast, most universities have a flexible general requirements system where students select different courses within a broad theme or subject matter. For instance, DePaul University requires students to select three natural science courses from a list of about twenty science courses. The flexibility of the system fosters student choice but does not allow for a cohesive theme because of the wide range of courses. Another problem is advising, which is consistently discussed by students as one of the main problems of a choice-based curriculum system at the Annual Student Leadership Institute at DePaul University. Many students get lost in the excessive choice available in most academic institutions and this may prolong the amount of time they spend in school and leave them ill-prepared for a career where one needs both specific and general skills.
In essence, general requirements add to the ability to attain a useful and meaningful college degree while improving the academic performance of first-generation students. However, a strict core curriculum does not provide enough flexibility in course selection whereas the distributional core curriculum at most universities provides too much choice. The ideal situation is for all universities including two-year community colleges to require the first academic year to include pre-selected courses that promote civic consciousness through social science courses, academic breadth through the humanities, and technological preparation via mathematics and natural science courses. The second year should include a handful of themes and within each theme a set of required courses (e.g., community service) from which students can apply their academic knowledge and learn practical career skills. Although the best way to fully prepare college students is to make sure they receive the financial resources (housing, food, and health care) and the academic foundation (high self-esteem, extracurricular activities and a supportive home environment) in early childhood through college to perform well on the collegiate level. Further research on the influence of home environment on the academic performance of children is necessary to understand why some students are academically successful while others struggle.
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