December 10, 2023

Completing general education (GE) courses in college is something we know we must do. While some of these classes are helpful, many are similar to what students have learned in high school. Though GE courses help broaden the knowledge of the student population and develop critical thinking skills, the prices for those classes and the time to complete them add to the mountain of student debt. Universities across the nation should consider how GE requirements affect students.

I recently came back from living in Germany for three years, and throughout my time there, I befriended a few of the locals. Often, they would bring up American education and how we require our college students to take a myriad of general education courses to graduate, as this was not the case in the European system.

After doing some research, I found that it is standard for German universities to offer significantly fewer GE courses in their degree programs. In addition to paying lower tuition for public universities, these students also graduate in less time. I wondered what this might look like in America.

How many transfer students have you met that went to a community college for GE classes? Going to community college is a common practice to reduce tuition expenses and eventual student loans. In fact, more than three of every four community college students plan to transfer to a university, according to The Public Policy Institute of California.

And tuition is not getting any cheaper. Over the past 20 years, tuition has increased more than any other service besides hospital care, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Soaring expenses make students think twice about what degree path they want to pursue, especially if they must also work jobs outside of coursework, and courses that do not align with their destination can increase both their stress and loan costs.

On the other hand, GE classes give students the opportunity to explore subjects they did not think they would try or did not have exposure to in high school. The idea that an 18-year-old is supposed to choose a career field that will be a central feature of their lives for decades is unrealistic given their limited exposure to these fields. GEs offer that exposure and flexibility, allowing students to pivot in another direction. While this is advantageous, the classes still have a price tag attached to them, and it would be easier on a student’s finances if they took time off to figure out what they really want to do.

Restructuring GE requirements would make it possible to obtain your bachelor’s degree in two years instead of four. The extra two years would push graduates into the workforce sooner and allow them more time to scale up in their career field at a younger age. Working earlier would also benefit those who have accrued student loan debt and do not want to spend the rest of their lives paying it off. Students may become more specialized and lose the broader knowledge they would have picked up in GE courses, but the trade-off could work well for those who have direct ambitions in their career field.

Shortening the degree path can also help with student burnout and dropout rates: It is much easier to get through the papers, presentations and homework if students know they only have to get through two years and if they enjoy their courses. The current national college dropout rate is at 32.9%, with California residents 46.5% more likely to drop out during their undergraduate program due to financial sacrifice and stress, according to Education Data Initiative. Reducing the size of degree programs across the board could offer a win-win situation for students and universities.

If a student wants to take extra classes to extend their education, that should be their choice. It should fall on the high schools to offer general education. It’s also true that everyone’s high school education is different, which is a debate for another time, but mandating knowledge and financial redundancies with GE classes should be reevaluated. Going back to the drawing board and reexamining America’s educational priorities would help to fix some of the issues we are experiencing today.

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