How colleges are giving Gen Ed an extreme makeover

More students are pursuing higher education with career outcomes in mind, and many begin their college journey with the goal of landing a job by graduation.

But too often, general education requirements feel more like a "laundry list" of unrelated courses than a deliberate pathway towards academic and professional success, Colleen Flaherty writes for Inside Higher Ed.

And without a streamlined curriculum, students end up selecting courses based on convenient times or the opportunity to take classes with friends, a lost opportunity to orient their course selection around personal goals, Diana Barnes writes for EAB's Academic Affairs Forum.

At the Association of American Colleges and Universities' annual meeting, a panel of campus leaders from Goucher College, the College of William and Mary, and Ripon College shared how they redesigned their general education programs with student success in mind, Flaherty writes.

Goucher, for example, launched a curriculum that offers first-year students the opportunity to approach real-world problems with an interdisciplinary lens, Flaherty writes. Instead of reserving experiential learning opportunities for senior year, Goucher is "frontloading the interesting stuff," says Robin Heralds Cresiski, the director of Goucher's Center for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching.

Similarly, at William and Mary, students participate in theoretical discussions and group projects their first two years on campus, Flaherty writes. Later on, students put "theory to practice" by trying out their academic interests off campus, says John Donahue, dean of educational policy and faculty member at William and Mary.

Hands-on learning opportunities help shrink the gap between general education coursework and professionally-oriented skills, Barnes writes.

Related: How to transform student employment into meaningful career development

Closing the skills gap

To design Ripon's curriculum, faculty imagined the skills students would need to conduct an independent research project and worked backwards from there, says Ed Wingenbach, vice president and dean of the faculty.

Ripon's curriculum focuses on helping students build skills such as information literacy, collaboration, critical thinking, writing, and quantitative reasoning, Flaherty writes. The skills that faculty identified as critical for academic success align with the skills employers look for in recent graduates, says Wingenbach.

When students complete the gen ed requirements, they earn a concentration in applied innovation that signals their proficiency in these in-demand skills, Flaherty writes.

Lessons learned

Like any other campus-wide initiative, faculty support and buy-in are the key to success, says Cresiski. Firm deadlines, regular meetings, and retreats can help keep faculty and administrators on deadline when restructuring the curriculum, says Wingenbach.

Ultimately, overhauling general education is hard work—but the effort pays off in a more interdisciplinary liberal arts education, says Donahue. The redesign process can also break down the silos between different departments, he adds (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 1/31).

Soft skills, hard skills, missing skills—More ideas for tackling the skills gap


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