Whether you are a graduating senior about to attend college or a junior considering which college to attend, you should a college’s General Education requirements. These are courses that everyone, regardless of their major, must take in order to complete their degree. They will usually represent one-quarter to one-third of the total credits required. While this information is not likely to stand out, or even be readily volunteered by the school in its marketing materials or on the campus tours, it should be a factor in your choice of college.
Some of the General Education requirements will be courses your student wants to take, others will not. At most schools, General Education Requirements will consist of a semester or two of English composition, aka Expository Writing, Humanities, Fine Arts and Performing Arts, Social Science, Foreign Language, Mathematics and Science. Sometimes there will be a community service requirement or a life fitness course requirement. The last, to let non-athletes know, is pass-fail. Other schools have added a First Year Seminar, a small class conducted by a professor. Still others have required courses in History (American History, Continent-based History or World History) or Diversity. If you are looking at Jesuit or other religiously affiliated colleges you will like see General Education Requirements in subjects such as Philosophy and Religion.
Why do colleges have General Education Requirements?
They do because their leadership and faculty want to see their students receive a broader-based liberal arts education, whether the students want it or not. However, the more required courses a student must take to fulfill General Education Requirements as well as their major, the fewer the electives available. Class schedules also become more challenging to make. And, while colleges take responsibility for producing well-rounded students, they do not allocate resources evenly so that every student can succeed in every class. If you have a choice between a school that has few General Education requirements and one that will ask for student to take 12 credits in subjects where they have had considerable difficulty, and the tutoring resources are limited, the choice could affect the time it takes to earn the degree as well as the chances of doing well academically.
Are there ways around General Education Requirements?
Yes, if you have not yet chosen a college you can consider how different schools address them.
Some colleges, such as Amherst, Brown, Hampshire, Smith and Kalamazoo have no General Education Requirements at all. If you go to any of these schools, you might have only one or two required courses, and then you have free rein to choose what ever classes you want, as long as you complete any necessary pre-requisites. The upside: you have the freedom to choose, as long as you have some idea what you might like to study. The downside: if you hope to use AP or IB courses towards college credit, it will not happen at these schools. You might be given entree’ into a more advanced course instead.
Other colleges try to encourage their students to integrate their courses around a theme. Suppose you were interested in business. An integrated series of courses outside of a business or economics major might include an Ethics course in the Philosophy department, a statistics course in the Math department and a Sociology of Work course in the Sociology department, among other courses. The idea is to help students choose courses that might complement the major, or choose a possible minor.
But what if you have committed to a college?
Can you still work within the General Education Requirements of the school that you chose?
Here are three questions to ask yourself as you choose courses:
+ Can you place out of the introductory courses?
Different schools have different policies regarding advanced standing. Some will grant course credit based on a ‘4’ or ‘5’ on an AP test. Others will ask students to sit for their own examination. Some schools may give credit for the intro course, but ask students to take an advanced course in the same subject instead. Some students may prefer to accumulate as many credits as they can before they start college so that they may finish earlier or jump into more advanced studies. If you are declared exempt from a class because of a high score on an advanced placement exam, and the class is not in your major, the credits earned are “transfer credits.” The more you have, the fewer credits a college will require for you to earn a degree.
+ Aside from English composition or a foreign language, is there a wide variety of courses to choose from in each subject area, or are the choices very limited?
For instance, do you need to take calculus to fulfill the math requirement or take a large lecture and lab course to earn the science credits? Those who had trouble learning these subjects in high school may have more difficulty learning them in a less personal setting. Those who become tempted to skip these classes should watch out. Avoiding the class does not make things any easier in college. Some schools offer survey courses that are less quantitative or relate to contemporary issues, for example: the environmental and scientific issues behind an oil spill. I’s better for a non-scientist to learn science in a way that they can relate to it, than to throw him into a laboratory class taught primarily by graduate assistants.
+ Can you apply a course used to fulfill a General Education Requirement towards a major or minor?
Some schools let you “double count” courses towards fulfilling requirements as well as completing a major or minor. If you take calculus, for example, as a requirement to complete an Economics major, you fulfill a major requirement as well as the college’s math requirement. While a minority of college require their students to complete a minor, many allow a General Education Requirement to be applied towards a minor. Suppose, for instance, that you like Economics and Mathematics, but don’t want to complete a Math major. That calculus course could be used as the pre-requisite into a Mathematics or Statistics minor.
In a sense the academic side of college is like high school. Teachers want you to take courses in subjects you like as well as subjects you may not like, because its supposed to be “good” for you. A diligent student must look at these requirements and learn how to work them to their advantage.
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