Thursday, June 20, 2013


“Rationalizing” Gen Ed

In the “choice is bad” conference Wednesday, several speakers referred to “rationalizing” the general education curriculum as a way to improve student success.  The idea was that students who don’t already know their way around higher ed -- typically the first-generation, low income students -- are easily overwhelmed by too many options.  So if we want to improve the percentages of those who make it to graduation, we should narrow down the options so the pathways will be clear.

That sounds innocent enough, but implementation could be ugly.

Most colleges construct gen ed requirements on the classic “distribution requirement” (also called “Chinese menu”) model.  Take two from column A, three from column B, one from column C, and so on.  When you’ve checked off the relevant boxes, you’re generally educated.

That’s not because anybody particularly believes that the “distribution” model is a great idea.   It’s both too broad to form any sort of basis of common knowledge, and too disjointed to form a coherent whole.  The movement to assess gen ed outcomes was born, in part, of a recognition that the whole doesn’t necessarily equal the sum of its parts; as options multiply, the odds of students getting a coherent education get longer.  Embedding, and assessing, gen ed outcomes in various classes is a sort of retrofit to try to stop the leakage.

Columns A, B, and C are as long as they are for a couple of reasons.  First, at least in theory, a wider range of choices offers a greater likelihood of a given student taking something she actually likes.  As any teacher knows, student interest greatly enhances student performance.  And there is some truth to that.  (A close variation on that argument is the “serendipity” argument.  If I hadn’t been forced to take economics, the student says, I never would have discovered how much fun it is.)  But for the most part, students wind up picking gen ed electives based on scheduling, what their friends are taking, and/or how difficult the courses are reputed to be.  Yes, there are exceptions, but the expression “get your gen eds out of the way” exists for a reason.

The second reason is internal campus politics.  Getting your course on the list of ways to fulfill a requirement effectively guarantees a certain level of enrollment.  If your course is dropped from the list, you could reasonably expect enrollments to drop.  Depending on context, the drop could be minor or it could be severe.  But when resources are constrained, which department wants to take the chance?

To make that concrete, take the social sciences.  Right now students can satisfy a social science requirement by taking psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, or several others.  If we were to “rationalize” that requirement by streamlining it -- say, by making Intro to Psych the social science requirement for everybody -- I could imagine the psychology department hailing that decision as wise, and the sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics departments raining holy hell upon all and sundry.  They’d perceive the change, correctly, as a direct threat to their livelihoods.

In principle, that shouldn’t matter.  Colleges are supposed to be run for the students, rather than for the faculty.  But students come and go, and faculty stick around.  They have no intention of reforming themselves out of work, or even out of resources, no matter how good the argument.  Provosts who push that sort of change tend not to stay provosts for long.

My sense is that “rationalizing” gen ed would make a marginal difference at best; the real issues are around other things.  And the politics of trying it are simply prohibitive.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an approach to streamlining gen ed requirements that actually worked, made sense, and didn’t result in campus bloodletting?  Or is this really a red herring?

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