Nearly every campus in the United States front-loads general (or liberal) education. At many schools, students take all of their GE courses in the first two years on campus. Even those schools whose GE programs include upper-division courses place most of the GE credits in the freshman and sophomore years.
Here are some key reasons why schools should consider reversing the GE/major sequence:
1. Students arrive with an inherent mis-understanding of GE. Several years ago my colleagues at BYU and I polled freshmen on their views of GE. Most thought it was a continuation of high school. Of course, many students treat the courses as a continuation of high school.
2. More and more students bring AP credits with them to college. Those credits routinely count for GE courses, thus causing havoc even with the best-designed GE curricula (or if a school decides to accept AP credit only for placement and credits toward graduation, then the AP/GE problem breeds resentment).
3. Passion leads to engagement and retention. Most students coming to college have some passion in the curriculum. Front-loading GE defers real engagement with a student's areas of passion, replacing it with courses that the student may not engage with.
4. Faculty mentoring is essential for engagement and retention. And the more closely that mentoring is attached to a student's passion and major, the more durable and meaningful the relationship. Some students find their mentors in GE. Many more find them in their major.
5. Employment prospects depend on working in the field prior to graduation. More and more employers expect that their new hires have meaningful work experience prior to hiring. Placing the major at the end of the curriculum means many students do not get that meaningful work prior to graduation because they are not prepared for it. Completing the major by the end of the junior year gives students a year to begin working in the field (be it in paid or unpaid jobs) prior to going on the market.
6. Employers want students with GE skills--communication, critical thinking, teamwork, etc. They are generally disappointed in what their new employees bring. There are two curricular reasons why this is the case. First, most of the GE skills get practiced in the first two years of college, but only vaguely or implicitly reinforced in the major. Second, many of these skills are discipline-specific. Placing a substantial portion of GE after the major ensures that the student will be able to connect their major to the GE skills they practice at the end of their college experiences.
7. GE is about making connections across the disciplines. When students don't know the disciplines, they are hard to connect. Students know little about the disciplines in their first couple of years. And they certainly don't know enough to connect their area of passion--their major--to the disciplines until after substantial engagement with that major.
8. Students need an opportunity to sum-up prior to going into the world. A key part of GE is reflecting on learning, summing up and taking stock of how one fits into the world. With a GE-first model, that sort of purposeful, curriculum-based summing up is rare.
9. Colleges need a chance to make their case to students. Most colleges and universities believe that important things happen to students in GE. They become more mature, they join the human conversation, and they understand how life at a particular college helped shape them. These beliefs are by-and-large true. But if GE is doing this in the first couple of years, by the end of the college experience the student may not associate these outcomes with the college, but instead with the major. If colleges want to hang onto their alumni, GE at the end helps.
10. Students are ready to engage with the big questions at the point of graduation. Anyone who has taught a freshman seminar and a senior seminar on the same topic knows that the discussion and learning are richer at the senior than the freshman level. If GE is in part about these big issues--justice, community, truth, beauty--then the time to focus on them is when students are ready. Or in other words, at the end of their college experiences.
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