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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.  

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.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.