A look at the changing role of general education on college campuses

Earlier this fall, I spoke with a number of local colleges and universities who had, in recent years, changed their core curriculum or general education requirements. One thing was clear: there’s a much stronger focus these days on skills, rather than on particular courses.

For example, at the University of Akron, the new general education program puts a stronger focus on learning outcomes, like writing or critical reasoning, said Janet Bean, coordinator of general education. The program hadn’t been updated in nearly 20 years, so it was time for a change. The new program was implemented this fall. The changes also allowed students to fulfill general education requirements with courses they’re taking for their majors, which could make it easier for them to earn degrees in 120 credit hours, she said.

Some schools, like Malone University, have been putting a focus on skills over courses for a little while longer.

Malone went through a major overhaul back in 2006, revising it in 2014, said Gregory J. Miller, director of general education. The university decided to focus on skills instead of content and have four core ideas woven into its curriculum, including creative and critical thinking.

The changes implemented at John Carroll University in 2015 and fully implemented at Baldwin Wallace University in 2016 were similar, moving from discipline-based requirements to skills-based. At Baldwin Wallace, for example, students now have to pick courses that fulfill different perspectives, as associate provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Guy Farish puts it, like creative expression or cultural literacy. It’s a “much more intentional” approach to what skills the university wants students to gain, Farish said.

Ursuline College’s approach was a little different. The college changed its core curriculum this fall to both make it more flexible for transfer students and to make sure it was staying true to Ursuline’s unique vision, said Mimi Pipino, who oversees the college’s core curriculum. The old core had been around since the early ’90s, she said.

The college surveyed faculty, administration, staff and students before changing the curriculum to make sure it was representing a wide variety of viewpoints. This led to changes like adding financial literacy to the first-year seminar, which students expressed as a need, Pipino said.