The Future of GenEd

What is the future of general education (GenEd)?

This questions was the subject of a one-day leadership conference organized by Inside Higher Education that I attended in Washington DC on April 17. A nice summary of the conference can be found here, so I will limit this post to my observations.

First, it should be admitted up front that all of the presenters were preaching to the choir. The attendees, comprised of GenEd directors, deans, provosts, faculty, were there because they all believe in the importance of GenEd.  This view is generally shared by university administrations. A Gallup survey of 475 provosts showed that 93% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “General education is a crucial part of any college degree.” but  they were less sanguine that students acknowledged the value of GenEd.  The consensus of attendees seemed to be that  GenEd is under attack. With rising college costs and students (and their parents) increasingly focused on college as job preparation, any class outside the major is seen as a superfluous expense. The term I heard used was a “broccoli curriculum” — distasteful but supposedly good for you.

There is growing evidence for the wholesome benefits of GenEd. In recent years, the Association of American Colleges & Universities has been stressing the commonalities between GenEd learning objectives and the skills corporate CEO’s and hiring managers say they look for in new college graduates. At this conference, we heard from Richard A. Detweiler about his interviews of over a 1000 college graduates 10 to 40 years after graduation regarding their college experiences, their career success, leadership roles, cultural activities, etc. Detweiler believes there is strong evidence that “that attending a liberal arts college is likely to yield numerous positive results in graduates’ lifetimes, including but not limited to career and financial success.”

So how do we sell students and their parents on broccoli? Better messaging is necessary but insufficient.  In my view, the challenge is to ensure that the GenEd courses we serve up fulfill the promises.  If we do not use our best teachers in GenEd, if we do not support these instructors with sufficient resources, if we do not continually innovate and reinvent our GenEd courses, then students are right to complain.

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