The College Core Curriculum: Enlightenment or Gatekeeper?

By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D. President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

According to the Community College Research Center[1] at Teachers College, approximately 60 percent of incoming community college students are referred to at least one developmental course, and less than a quarter of students who enroll in those courses complete a degree within eight years.

Many of the students who take developmental courses do so because of a requirement for a select set of “core” courses, sometimes referred to as general education, to earn their diploma, certificate, or degree. The purpose of core courses is generally to ensure that students have a broad experiential education and gain critical thinking skills to aid them in their other courses.

collegecoreWebpage from New York University

Typical core courses include mathematics, science, history, English, literature, and choices of certain social sciences courses (e.g., philosophy; psychology). The challenge for many students is that some or many of these courses end up being gatekeepers to their ability to progress to degree, especially those courses and requirements unrelated to their major course of study.

For instance, at Columbia College within Columbia University in New York, the core includes contemporary civilization course with readings such as The Republic (Plato), The Hebrew Bible, The Discourses (Machiavelli), and the Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. In addition, Columbia requires three science courses, and a foreign language component. Columbia perhaps is not a typical institution, but this gives you a quick idea of requirements for students at that institution. At Tidewater Community College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, course requirements in diagnostic medical sonography include anatomy and physiology, mathematics, physics, English Composition, a social science elective, a humanities elective, and basic computer literacy. At Columbia, you get the core being literature; at TCC, you understand the focus on anatomy and related technical courses. But the question remains why is it necessary to require non-related courses for graduation that, for many students, may become gatekeepers to completion?

Institutions, and Departments, to be fair, vary greatly in how they deal with core courses, but most typically require courses from outside their academic program. The challenge becomes when certain courses become gatekeepers to further progress for students. Certainly, if a student requires remedial course work related to their field of study, that makes sense. However, if the remedial course is non-related, then I think we have to challenge the basis of that requirement.

Mathematics is often the best example because of the nature of mathematics, itself, but I’m not sure why it is important for a student to take more mathematics after a decade-plus of mathematics when their major study is unrelated to mathematics. The same can be said for foreign language requirements, which are nice to have but completely unnecessary for programs outside of language study. It can be argued that some English study is useful, but those two required English courses, for those who are not English majors, should be more related to technical writing or something relative to their major study.

We often advise institutions with graduation rate issues to look at their courses with the highest DFW levels (D, F, or Withdrawal). There needs to be significant review of why students are failing or leaving these courses, and also an internal review of whether these courses are necessary for those students. A simple change of requirements can reduce attrition greatly for many students.

In the end, this is part of the philosophical tug-of-war between vocational pragmatism and the theoretical canon of higher education. We have a general education core in our curriculum because our instructors and educational leaders believe in the importance of having all of their students share in a unique and important lesson that they will use in their studies and life. They are not incorrect in this belief. The challenge is that just because we’ve done things the same way for so long doesn’t offer an excuse for not changing with the times.

I’m not suggesting we don’t have a general core. I am suggesting we think very carefully about what the core is and what the benefit is to the student as well as the institution. It must make sense, especially for the more vocationally-minded studies. In the end, we’re talking about opportunity cost for all stakeholders.

[1] Bailey, Thomas, and Cho, Sung-Woo (2010, October). Developmental Education in Community Colleges. An issue brief of the Community College Research Center. New York, NY: CCRC.


One thought on “The College Core Curriculum: Enlightenment or Gatekeeper?

  1. Neither British nor Australian universities generally have a common core or general education requirement in postsecondary education; general education is considered the responsibility of school education.

    Whatever position is thought right, it needs to be taken into account in comparing completion rates internationally.

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