General education helps college students succeed

Many of us have a bias about general education. We naturally think that if it is "general" and not specialized or specific, general education is somehow "less."

Every program of study in higher education involves the completion of a series of courses called "general education" requirements. There has been much controversy of late about whether general education requirements should, in fact, be required. So the question then becomes: if these classes are "required" does general education have value?

In last month's article, "value" was a main theme. In this month's I offer this: GenEd has value beyond its name. It has a direct relationship to analytical understanding and gives us insight into what things mean.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, wrote in an Oct. 19 Inside Higher Education article: "A lot of potential students are being asked to take general education requirements for half the time it takes to achieve their degree and then receive the training that directly corresponds to the career they want. The people would rather just get the job training done and, thus, turn away from college."

On the flip side, a recent study completed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities noted that 91 percent of employers are looking for employees to take on more responsibilities and have in place a broader set of skills, intuition and creativity than in the past.

Employers today require the whole package when looking for people to hire and join their teams. They want people who possess knowledge beyond the skills needed to perform particular tasks for their job. They want individuals who possess intangible skills not necessarily listed as part of a certificate or degree.

GenEd courses cultivate creative thinking, the ability to convey information effectively to others, problem-solving abilities and an understanding of global issues, cultures and perspectives. GenEd can broaden learners' horizons.

College of DuPage and our colleagues across higher education provide GenEd requirements as the building blocks of a curriculum for both degree-seeking and transfer students. Taking courses outside a person's core area of study opens a world of knowledge to learners, enabling them to make decisions, act ethically, interact with a team of diverse people and communicate ideas effectively in writing and in conversation.

We are not islands. We are connected to this world and to each other. General education - or "general experience" - courses provide students with an understanding of the importance of working across diverse backgrounds and ideas.

Teamwork is a cornerstone of general studies courses that introduces students to others outside their core field of study and opens them up to new ideas and the concept of compromise as a way to get the best result.

Often, GenEd courses help to uncover in students a passion for a field of study they might not have come across and that captures their imagination. Many of these courses result in the discovery of a new talent for a profession that might otherwise have been missed.

With the value of GenEd in mind, there is a movement toward changing the delivery of these courses to make the subject matter more appealing and applicable.

This fall, for example, students at COD completed English, political science and speech requirements by enrolling in a course called "Decision 2016." Contemporary Life Skills classes also are available in Automotive Services Technology for non-majors, and Earth Science credits can be earned in meteorology/storm chasing, hydrology and oceanography, astronomy or geology courses.

In addition, a new initiative at COD enables cohorts of student learning communities to focus on two or more courses connected by a common theme. Examples include "Cruise the Caribbean," a virtual cruise that satisfies GenEd requirements in mathematics, physical science, and social and behavioral science.

Service learning courses, which combine community service with classroom teaching, are also available to fulfill GenEd requirements in sociology, English, health science, humanities and speech.

While the term "GenEd requirements" is useful for the mechanics of scheduling courses, there is a value proposition missing from this terminology. Instead, based on the intrinsic and often surprising outcomes that result from this type of learning, we should think about general education differently.

These courses more accurately comprise "capstone education," reflecting the ability of these courses to unlock the potential of the whole person, motivating each of us to learn more than what our assumptions provide and to know more and grow more throughout our lives.

• Ann Rondeau is president of the College of DuPage. Her column appears in Neighbor monthly during the school year.

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