Distribution Requirements — So Much for the Notion That Colleges Provide a Broad Education

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Colleges like to claim that they provide students with a broad education, and, in the past, there was some truth to that. They used to require students to take general education courses that covered a wide array of the topics that would give them at least some familiarity with an array of the disciplines felt necessary for good citizenship.

But that hasn’t been true for a long time. Today, most schools allow students to choose their courses from a huge smorgasbord of offerings — the “distribution requirements” approach. It doesn’t come close to ensuring a broad education. For the last decade, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has been surveying American colleges as to their general education requirements, and, in today’s Martin Center article, Ashlynn Warta looks into the findings of ACTA’s most recent report.

She writes, “Unfortunately, the report’s findings reveal that a majority of America’s colleges and universities are falling short in their attempts to educate students. According to the report, ‘Overall, the results are troubling… On the whole, higher education has abandoned a coherent, content-rich general education curriculum… 67.1% of the schools surveyed require three or fewer of [ ] seven core subjects.’”

It’s not that students don’t have to take some history, for example, but they can choose almost anything relating to history. At UNC-Chapel Hill, a course entitled Perspectives on Food History will suffice.

In North Carolina, only Gardner-Webb University received an A grade from ACTA, with requirements meeting all seven of the curricular areas. On the other hand, flagship NC State only met one.

Warta concludes, “With only thirteen percent of Americans and only 34 percent of college students feeling confident that they are prepared to succeed in the workplace, it is imperative that curriculum requirements be strengthened nationwide. This report paints a clear picture of the areas in which America’s schools have room for improvement. For North Carolina specifically, by using this report as the standard to measure against, the state has quite a bit of work to do to ensure its students are all consistently offered a rigorous and robust education.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
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