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October 11, 2018

How Core is Core Curriculum in Higher Education?

MHT Partners  | Education Investment Bank

Once upon a time, every college in the U.S. had a core curriculum that every student was required to complete.  Today, most universities still implement a core curriculum for all students irrespective of major, but it tends to include courses offered across a broad set of topics.  Comprised of the first 30 to 45 undergraduate hours, subject areas typically include history, humanities, mathematics, physical sciences, creative arts and politics.

Advocates for core curriculum suggest that it is imperative to student development, the establishment of a common base of knowledge and communal dialogue.  They believe that core curriculum provides the appropriate amount of direction and structure to students who are still discovering their individual interests.  Many students discover subject areas that excite them, which allow them to pursue interests beyond a single, focused major or field of study.  Beyond a well-rounded understanding of the basics, these core courses are meant to cultivate a critical and creative intellectual foundation meant to be employed long after college.  Each institution selects the specific courses it will offer to fulfill the core framework, and universities tend to pride themselves on their particular offerings.  Such variety within each university results in flexibility and choice for students, while also providing a sequence of somewhat correlated courses.

Core curriculum skeptics think of core curriculum as a dilution of academic standards and a stifled approach to discovering one’s interests. Naysayers view core curriculum as overly fixed and potentially outdated during a time when the educational journey should be more personalized and relevant to the 21st century.  The broad collection of core courses adequately distributes enrollment across the major academic departments, but does it support what students really need to know?  Imagine, for example, if general education requirements were shifted away from basic subject areas and replaced with domains such as media literacy, data fluency, communication in the digital era, the economics of information, and social and personal finance? Would students graduate college more mentally and socially prepared for the “real world?”

A reality in higher education is that increasing tuition, juxtaposed with declining employment rates for college graduates with certain degrees, poses a threat for those majors and their respective educational departments.  ThinkAdvisor reported the majors with the highest unemployment in 2018 included mass media, fine arts, English, liberal arts and philosophy.  With that in mind, do the benefits of these areas of knowledge outweigh the expense for students when they are required coursework?  The responsibility lies on university administrators and educators to determine whether these courses continue to impart critical skills for a career in today’s job market and therefore deserve priority as fundamental to higher learning.

Think Advisor. “10 Worst Majors for Getting Hired.” Bernice Napach. May 2018 (https://www.thebalance.com/college-graduate-salaries-expectations-vs-reality-4142305)

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