General Education: Open vs. Core Curriculum

In my previous posts, I’ve highlighted the financial effects of general education at Penn State and examined the European approach towards general education and, more broadly, higher education. This week, I want to examine two of the best universities in the United States, Brown University and Columbia University, in respects to their polar opposite philosophies towards general education. Brown University promotes an open curriculum, with hardly any requirements, and even the option to take many classes on a pass/fail grading scale. Meanwhile, Columbia University sports a core curriculum — a set of specific classes that all students must take. Which is more effective? That will be for you to decide. Regardless, they highlight the two stances in the general education debate.

Brown University

The “Brown Curriculum”, or the “Open Curriculum”, dates back to the university’s fourth president, in the 1850s. According to the school’s website, he argued that students should “have greater freedom in pursuing a higher education, so that each would be able to ‘study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.'” Over 150 years later, his vision still stands. The site states that the “first Western universities conceived of the liberal arts as seven distinct modes of thought, three based on language (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and four on number (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).” But instead of adhering to these subjects, Brown encourages its students to find their own.

Numerous findings suggest this approach works. Brown boasts some of the most impressive undergraduates in the country, with leaders in all fields. But is Brown successful because of this type of curriculum specifically? The university will argue the pro, but I think it’s a bit more complicated.

One of the most competitive schools in the country, Brown trusts its students to make wise academic decisions. As such, though there are no true course requirements outside of one’s major, the university will likely not admit a student who will only take gym classes, or cooking classes, or anything else requiring little academic fortitude. Instead, Brown accepts students who don’t need requirement to challenge themselves, or to take a wide array of classes. And thus, I think the students succeed because they’re smart, erudite, and motivated individuals. Not specifically because of the general education guidelines set up in their school.

For that reason, I’m not sure if such an environment would work at a bigger school like Penn State, or at a school with less talented, less motivated students. Brown is a unique school, and sets up nicely to no core requirements.

Columbia University

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Columbia’s Core Curriculum. According to its website, “the Core Curriculum is the set of common courses required of all undergraduates and considered the necessary general education for students, irrespective of their choice in major.”

The “Core” is composed of six classes — Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, University Writing, Arts Humanities, Music Humanities, and Frontiers of Science — which take about a year to complete. Evidently, it’s geared towards the humanities, and comprises a much different first two semesters than the classes a Penn State freshman engineer would take.

However, in the university’s opinion, it’s not about the courses, but it’s about the experience. With the whole freshman class taking the same classes, reading the same books, studying the same material, it’s a uniting experiences, both between peers and within oneself. According to Columbia, the Core is “not only academically rigorous but also personally transformative for students, the Core seminar thrives on oral debate of the most difficult questions about human experience.”

Personally, I think that no matter one’s major, experiencing a freshman year of Columbia’s Core Curriculum would be an unparalleled academic privilege. With most courses taught by renowned professors, surrounded by intelligent peers, it wouldn’t really matter if you weren’t taking the engineering classes you need to graduate. The requirements are still set up so that you’ll be able to earn you degree in four years.

Regardless of your stance, these two differing views of general education, both from top universities, highlight that there may be no correct method for academic achievement. Every school is different, as well as every school’s students. And in my opinion, that something to remember as the debate over general education at institutes of higher education rages on.

General Education: America vs. Europe

In my last Civic Issues post, I elaborated on a numerical breakdown of general education at Penn State, looking at both the necessary credit allotments as well as the cost per credit, the amount we pay for gen eds as students. The study, written by Associate Dean Doctor Chris Long, noted that students spend about 60% of our credits to fulfill gen eds requirements, which costs the school nearly $4,500 dollars. A pretty penny, no doubt, but because these courses often are not taught by professors, it’s in fact less expensive for the university than classes led by tenured professors.

For this post, I want to expand our study of general education, to include the European model of education, and highlight the merits and downfalls of each system.

First, let us highlight the European mode of learning. In an article by Betty Joyce Nash, the author writes that Germany and Switzerland (and other European countries), “educate roughly 53 percent and 66 percent of students, respectively, in a system that combines apprenticeships with classroom education — the dual  system.” This streamlines students directly into the workforce, and, as a result, unemployment rates are not as high as they are in America (7.7% in 2011, compared to 17.3% in the United State that year).

Students choose a path — usually the humanities, natural sciences, engineering, or the social sciences —  at a young age, often during high school. Once in this path, they take very few classes outside of their intended area of focus. In other words, gen eds are much less frequent. Also, once in the selected path, it’s very difficult to change from one path to another. Clearly, it’s a tradeoff — but it’s one awarded with a near guarantee to find a job upon graduation.

Another virtue of this system is the fact that most students combine their in-class learning with out of the classrooms internships, or “apprenticeships”. Nash writes, “at ages 15 to 16, in Switzerland, about two-thirds of every cohort enter apprenticeships…in fields from health care to hairdressing to engineering attend vocational school at least one day a week for general education and  theoretical grounding for roughly three years.”

I think it’s important to note that Nash uses the term “general education.” These internships effectively take the place of gen ed classes. Instead of science majors being required to take art classes — as they are in many schools in the United States — European students immerse themselves in their fields at any early age.

In America, as previously mentioned, there is no such concept as required, even encouraged, apprenticeships at an early age. Writes Nash, “in the United States, vocational education has been disparaged by some as a place for students perceived as unwilling or unable. ”

So, if all that Nash writes is true, we should jump the ship and switch to the European education model, right?

Not so fast, according to Stanford researchers Dirk Krueger and Krishna Kumar. In their paper “Skill-Specific rather than General Education: a Reason for Slow European Growth”, the authors assert that while, “general education is more costly to obtain, [it] reduces the lost of a worker’s task-specific productivity whenever a new technology is incorporated into production.” In other words, as the economy shifts — as it often does — those who have benefitted from an schooling based in general education are more prepared than those who study a skill-specific craft, as in Europe. In economics, this results in structural unemployment.

As a result, the authors speculate, that skill-specific education in Europe may have led to European countries falling behind the United States “in the information age of the 80s and 90s when new technologies emerged at a more rapid pace.” Clearly, Nash and Krueger & Kumar present two distinctly different theories. Nash suggests that the European model, based more off apprenticeship and less focused on gen eds, leads to less unemployment and greater job prospects. The Stanford researchers, conversely, argue that Europe has fallen behind America as a direct result of the differing educational systems.

There may be no correct answer, but what do you think on these differing theories regarding general education in America and abroad?

Example of Not for-Profit Persuasive Messaging

One of the most infamous athletes of our generation, Tim Tebow has drawn his fair share of fans and enemies. One select group of fans, however, went to an extreme level, funding a billboard in Jacksonville — Tebow’s home state — urging the team owners and coaches to “Start Tim Tebow”. We can’t really draw a verdict as to if the billboard was a success or waste of money, but Tebow did end up starting for the Broncos. If it did lead to his starting role, here are a few reasons why this is an effective, yet very simple, example of persuasive messaging:

First, it’s a huge billboard, on a major highway outside of Jacksonville. As a result, many people can see it. It raises public awareness towards the issue. And to a good portion of Floridians, this is an important topic. Tebow was nothing short of a hero as a student-athlete at Florida.

Secondly, the billboard gets right to the point, there’s no questioning the opinion of those behind the message. They want Tebow to start, and they’re not ashamed to push this platform to all the drivers on the major bypass.

Thirdly, and finally, the simplicity of the advertisement is a feat that can easily be overlooked, but one we shouldn’t fail to recognize. There’s no name of the advertisers, no one to take credit for the billboard. It’s only the text, a picture of Tebow, and a white background. Without anything to detract or distract from the message, we get the point quickly. And for good reason: drivers can probably only look at the billboard for a few seconds before returning their gaze to the road. As a result, the message has to be succinct. Clearly, it is.

General Education at Penn State: A Numerical Discussion

In light of our recent deliberations over the future of higher education, it seems that my civic issue topic — exploring general education — is especially pertinent. Initially, I planned on dedicating my first blog to introducing general education at Penn State and elsewhere. However, I came across a timely article written by Christopher Long, Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education at Penn State, breaking down General Education at our university. It’s an excellent, numerically-driven breakdown of where Penn State stands in regards to General Education, and also considers where we may be heading. Further, the article questions the economic feasibility of heavy GenEd requirements — a common concern amongst students.

Here’s how the current system runs, according to Dr. Long:

Penn State has a 45 credit GenEd requirement for a four-year Bachelor’s Degree. At branch campuses, where most students leave after two years for University Park, GenEds make up over half (60%) of the student credit hours (SCH). However, this overcounts the true extent of General Education at Penn State: many of the GenEds taken also count for major or minor requirements. Thus, according to Long, GenEds — not related to majors — really only account for a third of our total education at Penn State.

Now that we’ve established the basic background for our topic, let’s dive a bit deeper into the costs behind these General Education requirements. It’s much more complicated than the oft-assumed proposition that if a third of our classes are GenEds, then it must cost a third of our tuition — which would then be a third we could save if these requirements were changed. No. Bare with me, it’s not that simple.

Long breaks down the cost per SCH for GenEds by course level (0-199,200-299, 300-399, 400-499). The cost per SCH is primarily driven by class size. It would seem intuitive that the lower- level courses (0-199) would be less expensive than upper-level courses: lower-level courses are more inclusive, have fewer prerequisites, and often do have more students (think about Econ 102 compared to Econ 302). However, at University Park, 300 level courses are in fact less expensive per SCH than 200 level courses.

Long doesn’t really answer the “what could this possibly mean?” question. Despite the lack of a formal conclusion, I think we can derive a few things from his findings. First, it may not be the most cost-efficient option to simply cut GenEd requirements. If we did, thus only requiring students to only take lower-level GenEds, the university would be paying more per SCH than if students were continuing their general education to higher levels. However, we must keep in mind that Long’s analysis is looking at what the university is paying, not the student. I imagine that’s a different story. But for the university, a more expansive GenEd program seems lucrative, or at least less costly.

It’s further cheaper for the university because GenEds are taught overwhelmingly by fixed-term faculty members, not full or associate professors. According to Long, 56% of GenEds at Penn State are taught by fixed-terms; 20% are taught by full or associate professors. Given that fixed-terms, on average, receive a lower salary than tenured professors, General Education is less expensive for the university than a situation in which students take the same amount of credits, but with fewer GenEds.

Long then considers the implications of changing General Education at Penn State to a 36 credit requirement, a premise that many students support. The current cost for a 45 credit GenEd model for a student at University Park costs the school $4373. A 36 credit model, in which the other 9 credits are divided between electives and major-related courses, costs the university significantly more, to the tune of $5500-6450 depending on the model and college of the student.

Long’s findings suggest that General Education is the most affordable division of credit hours for the university. A few things to note:

By changing the GenEd requirements from 45 to 36 credits, it doesn’t make it 9 credits easier to graduate. Students will still have to fulfill other requirements with those 9 credits, which will now be more focused to their major. It doesn’t seem that Long — or the university — is proposing an initiative to scrap 9 credits from General Education, and thus also from the total credits needed to graduate.

In conclusion, while, to coin a term, Long’s analysis is university-side economics, it appears that heavy General Education requirements for Penn State (a school with over 40,000 students) is a cost efficient method to teach its students. Further, it’s a more complex issue than we may have first imagined: if it’s cheaper for the university, it may very well be cheaper for the student, as well.

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