How 3 institutions are rethinking general education

General education is the traditional method by which institutions expose students to a wide array of disciplines, help them identify their academic interests, and become well-rounded graduates. Unfortunately, this is often not how general education plays out in practice. Without much structure to support their exploration, 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 their personal goals.

Some institutions, however, are confronting this planning gap by adding new structures to their general education requirements.

Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois clusters gen ed classes around mission-oriented themes

At Northern Illinois, students cluster their general education requirements around themed pathways like Social Justice and Diversity, Health and Wellness, and Sustainability. After graduation, students now have an easier time narrating to employers the value of their gen ed experience coherently. And as pathways span academic discipline, the themes have the benefit of engaging a greater number of colleges in teaching gen ed courses.

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech combines experiential learning and gen ed

Virginia Tech has further enhanced the value of general education by allowing students to structure their general education around a theme and to complete, with faculty support and supervision, some of their general education requirements with an experiential learning opportunity. This ensures that general education at Virginia Tech is as focused on content knowledge as it is on testing that knowledge in application—shrinking the gap between general education coursework and professionally-oriented skills.

A degree model with a more applied core curriculum

The University of Colorado, Colorado Springs has gone even further by offering a completely new degree type. In 2012 UCCS launched the Bachelor of Innovation (BI) as an alternative to the traditional BA or BS degree that students can take in a variety of disciplines ranging from the pre-professional to the liberal arts. The program replaces many of the traditional general education courses with the “Innovation Core,” a series of courses built around entrepreneurial and cross-disciplinary competencies, while leaving the major coursework untouched.


This integration of a traditional major with a more professionally-oriented core has made the BI attractive to programs outside of pre-professional and technical fields and UCCS now offers the BI degree in four majors in the College of Arts and Humanities. For example, in Women’s and Ethnic studies, BI students develop the skills necessary to manage non-profit and activist organizations.

While UCCS initially expected the BI program enrollment to peak at 180 students, the program has proven to be far more popular. In 2015-2016 enrollments hit 384 students and the demand for the more applied core curriculum is expected to continue growing.

Innovation Bachelor

Beyond gen ed: Even more ways to improve student success

This Case Study Compendium showcases 10 diverse approaches to improving student outcomes, including institutions that have seen gains in first-year retention from 2 to 12 percentage points, and graduation gains from 3 to 11 percentage points.

See the Case Studies

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