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It is time for students to start questioning the university's graduation and general education policies.

Look into any introductory college course, whether it is Philosophy 100 or Biology 101, and chances are that many of the students aren’t there by choice. They are enrolled in these classes that appear irrelevant to their major, because of their college’s general education requirements. Virtually every college has a liberal arts foundation in place for its students, usually requiring courses in math, science and the social sciences. Student are often frustrated with these general education requirements because they prevent them from focusing on their major.

Requiring students to explore their options and become well-rounded through core requirements is a marvelous idea, but often risks hindering students from their selected field of study. Instead of requiring a rigid required course list, colleges should offer a more open approach to general education should be implemented.

The flaws of rigid general education requirements

The decision to go to college is usually based on the preface that a student has gotten a well-rounded high school education and is ready to begin focusing on a specific area of interest. The general education requirements can often feel like an extension of previously completed high school studies.

It is not uncommon for undergraduate students to find themselves in courses that contradict their major. An English major may find them greatly displaced in their Math 100 course or an Engineering major in their History 151 course. When students are forced into classes they struggle with, their GPAs can be negatively impacted. Moreover, students display less interest in these courses and usually don’t retain what they learned. 

In fact, after a two-year study, Brown University changed their core curriculum when they found, “forced enrollment in particular subjects often [leads] to minimal performance rather than true and lasting knowledge of a subject.”

Another consequence of the liberal arts core is overcrowded introductory courses. UC Berkeley professor, Norman C. Rabkin, offered insight saying, “it would be 'impossible' to require for a freshman class of 6,592 students, if only because it would be impossible to round up that many teachers.” Thus, universities jam pack introductory courses instead of enlisting more professors. The quality of these courses subsequently begins to come into question as class sizes increase.

The pioneers of progressive general education

If we look towards Ivy League institutions like Brown University, we do not see explicit general education requirements, but rather an open curriculum where students decide what courses they will take to enrich their learning. This innovative approach to the traditional liberal arts foundation was implemented in 1969 after Brown conducted a two-year study that revealed the rigid liberal arts education was not as effective as they believed.

Instead, Brown has three principles it encourages students to follow when creating their own core. These principles are as follows: "The first is that students ought to take an active role in their education by assuming responsibility for the direction of their learning. Secondly, an undergraduate education is seen as a process of individual and intellectual development, rather than simply a way to transmit a set body of information. Finally, the curriculum should encourage individuality, experimentation, and the integration and synthesis of different disciplines.”

General education requirements at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa follows a very traditional set of general education requirements that is divided into two sections: foundation requirements and diversification requirements. There are six different areas of study: Written Communication; Symbolic Reasoning; Global and Multicultural Perspectives; Arts, Humanities and Literatures; Social Sciences; and Natural Sciences. The required courses account for 31 credits, which is one-fourth of the 120 credits needed to graduate. That means one-fourth of a student's college education is made up of forced curriculum. Those credits could instead be used to take courses tailored to individual interests.

As students, we should not blindly accept the general education requirements universities hold us to. We have to take responsibility for enriching our education and demand that universities give us the freedom to form our education pathway. We are no longer high school students, and the capacity to decide for ourselves has long since matured within us. Look back on the general education courses you’ve taken in college and ask yourself if you could apply what you learned in your life today. If you aren’t quick to agree, then go one step further and question why your college even required you to take it.