College enrollment has declined nationally in recent years, and higher education is under increasing pressure to provide curriculum that students and adult workers find relevant.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

OPINION: What core courses should be required of Georgia college students?

An assistant professor at the University of North GeorgiaMatthew Boedy writes today about the unveiling of draft revisions to the core curriculum at Georgia’s public colleges.

The University System of Georgia is two semesters into rethinking its core curriculum. The USG wants to update its general education or core curriculum for undergraduate students with the goal of better preparing students for the workforce and changing economic realities and needs. 

As AJC higher education writer Eric Sturgis wrote in November:

The core curriculum upgrade is one of several changes the system’s chancellor, Steve Wrigley, has pushed as part of a long-term plan to improve student success...The Georgia system requires students to take 14 core courses, or 42 credit hours. Students must take various courses in math, science, technology and the humanities, much like requirements in Georgia’s public high school system.

College enrollment has declined nationally in recent years, and educators are under increasing pressure to provide curriculum that students and adult workers find relevant.

Some argue the core curriculum in U.S. colleges is flawed because many of those early courses are unnecessary for what students want to learn. 

There’s also the big picture question: What should be the goal of a core curriculum?

In this piece, Boedy attempts to answer that question.  

By Matthew Boedy

The University System of Georgia unveiled its first draft of revisions to the general education or “core” curriculum of this state’s higher education institutions last week.

The principles that ground these changes came from months of discussion between faculty, administrators, and business leaders around the state. 

These changes will affect students and schools for many years. Who and how many to hire are only two of the many faculty-orientated questions affected by the changes. Those lead to others such as how many students will end up in a particular major because “core” courses are often good recruiting moments. 

These discussions come at an important moment. Public opinion about the value of higher education has and will most likely continue to crater. Partisan attacks not only disparage the content of education but partisans now are demolishing its connection to the public by cutting its tax-based funding year by year

For example, in our state that is “the 40th most expensive and 13th most affordable state” to attend college, there are legislators who see too much money in higher education and want to force it to charge less. This comes after years of state legislators taking state funds from it. 

There is also the constant drumbeat of calls for high school graduates to get a career in the “blue collar” world and avoid those monumental student loans. Nevertheless, many students (and parents) still come. And they choose majors based on a hazy knowledge of jobs available in the future.

Then little Johnny or Susie or Manuel or Mariela faces a first semester schedule with not a whiff of their major on it. And it gets worse: they have to take all these “other” classes before they can take something they want, something they actually came to school for. 

Dr. Matthew Boedy

The key question for students (and parents) who are now more than ever reluctantly sending their money to Georgia’s colleges is why does a “general education” matter. Or, to put it in starker terms, why am I being forced to take two years of everything before I can take classes in my major? 

It is a question I face most everyday teaching a “core” English course to first-year college students who are majoring in anything but English. I wrote about this question before in the context of one particular student. 

The broad view also is important. “Core” courses are not an introduction to a random field – say, English studies, as if students would take more in-depth courses throughout their time on campus – but are part of a coherent process of connecting realms of knowledge, some realms new to students and some that are not. 

This is how the new USG general education principles describe it: “General education should inspire students to learn by allowing students to explore their passion and purposes and to make connections between a coherent body of knowledge in the core, their chosen professions, and information they may not realize they need to know.”

This echoes a term you have might have heard: “well-rounded.” This is an often-derided cliché. But this new version is not the one passed down to you or even your parents, a kind of shallow survey of many fields that you grind through to get to the one area you go deep into. The Association of American Colleges and Universities argues for a different model of “high quality” general education filled with writing, research, problem solving, and integrative work that gives students “opportunities to tackle complex questions at every step of the way, from first to final year.” 

This new model will have at its core big-picture learning through inquiry and engagement of problems facing our democracy and “diverse and complex global economy,” to cite the USG principles. 

A “general” education historically has been tied to American democracy, noting education as a needed element in securing freedom. A “general” education is broad because it liberates the student from merely partisan or ideologically blind views. In terms of economic diversity, a “core” education mandates critical reasoning and using evidence across disciplines to teach diverse ways of knowing.   

With all that lofty rhetoric in place, the revision’s next step is where the rubber meets road. 

Once the Board of Regents agree (most likely in May) to the changes in principles, how will schools use the core – which has to be transferable between them – to argue for their own specific kind of education? In other words, for example, how will my school, the university branding itself as a leadership school, create courses to meet that claim?  

As you can imagine, many faculty will argue for their own area and so imply another areas should not be in the “core.” 

If I have made my case well, then my field of rhetoric is implicitly a key to a general education. It’s why students need the two required courses of First Year English. It is also why many schools offer a writing-in-the-discipline course or a public speaking course as part of the core. And oh yeah, biologysociologycomputer science, and finance are rhetorical subjects. 

A “core” curriculum is not merely about meeting the needs of employers. Revising the core is also about you, the public. It is a moment for higher education to address its declining status. 

It is about answering fears of “liberal indoctrination” and “intellectual elitism” – two phrases often heard on the right of our political spectrum, a group that has the worst opinion of public higher education. 

So I pose this to you: What would you want your child to take their first two years? 

I hope you can see it is a broad, complex question. And so, it should be addressed by a general education. 

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About the Author

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