Most college degree curricula require students to take general education courses to graduate. While many students feel like these are a waste of time — and money — there are ways to benefit from gen ed courses!
What is a gen ed course?
A general education course, commonly shortened to “gen ed,” is a course or set of courses that students must take regardless of their major. These requirements usually need three to nine credits, meaning students dedicate one to three of their college courses to gen eds per subject matter.
When looking at a college curriculum, these gen eds often appear broken up into subject groups: English, mathematics, history, humanities and science. Many universities include a broad list of class requirements for students to fill with any gen ed or major college course.
An example of this is the requirement to take a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) course or a set number of courses within a certain “course level.” This may mean that students must take a specific number of “300 level or higher” courses, so colleges know students are not graduating after only taking beginner-level classes.
Specific gen ed categories do not get removed once a student declares a major. This means that students have to take even more courses — some of which they may have been trying to avoid — to fulfill their graduation requirements. This can make those classes particularly unenjoyable and may even result in a student losing interest in their degree.
Why do we take them?
There are tons of reasons why colleges require general education courses for all students, regardless of their major. Some of these reasons have to do with what the students will take away from their time at university. But other reasons include financial gain, higher student enrollment numbers and an increased number of courses available within a subject.
Most colleges would not like to admit that they have ulterior motives for requiring gen ed courses. And they usually end up stating that these courses are intended to make students work on core skills that can be applied to their future careers.
These make students more “well-rounded” and employable once they exit school and enter the workforce. But while the intentions of general education courses seem all right, they are usually treated as throwaway classes that students don’t remember by the time they graduate.
Traditionally, gen eds take up around 30-40 credits within a degree, and a typical bachelor’s degree is around 120 credits. This means that gen eds make up a quarter or even a third of a student’s college education, or roughly one year to a year and a half of their time.
Once you look at them like this, it is clear why colleges benefit financially from these courses. Suppose students complete their undergraduate degrees in two or three years instead of four, which is common outside of the United States. In that case, colleges lose any money they might have made from a student going for all four years and paying for resource fees, course fees and room and board.
Additionally, by making students stay at school for four years, colleges can keep their enrollment numbers higher, which looks suitable for their statistics. After all, colleges are often run like businesses. However, regardless of colleges’ reasons for making gen eds a requirement for all students, here are a few ways you can make the most out of these courses during your time in college.
1. Don’t stress yourself by taking challenging courses in subjects you are not confident in
This one may seem obvious, but you would be surprised to find out how many students end up taking rigorous courses outside of their major either out of curiosity or by accident. If you are attending college for a humanities degree and are adamant that you struggle in math and science, then take the most introductory courses within these two subjects instead of tough ones.
Taking these courses will allow you to stay stress-free and can even help you boost your GPA. On top of all that, beginner-level courses typically cover broader subjects, which are more useful to you in the future. In other words, if you aren’t planning on being a physicist, don’t take a physics-specific course!
2. Make sure to read the course description
Every college must provide a course catalog to new and continuing students. The catalogs give students the ability to see the nitty-gritty aspects of each course, like the number of credit hours, prerequisites, a course description and the course difficulty (often represented in the course code).
3. Talk to your peers — or peek on the internet
It is nearly impossible to have exclusively wonderful experiences when taking gen ed courses. You will probably find yourself in a particularly difficult or tedious class at least once. But when looking at the courses available in a subject you absolutely hate, it is important to think about other factors that can contribute to the class environment. This means your professor, the required work, the class structure, and maybe even the class size.
Every student is different, and what works for one might do nothing for another. Talking with classmates who have taken gen ed courses you’re interested in can give you reliable and real-life input on the subject and help you avoid some of the worst courses! If you can’t find anyone you know who has taken the course, you can always check review websites such as Rate My Professors. However, it’s best to take those opinions with a grain of salt!
4. Find courses that are interesting to you
This might also seem like a given, but sometimes students become desperate to complete their gen eds and take the first course they see. This can ruin the experience for you. When thinking about what courses you will use to complete a gen ed requirement, make sure to look through all the available courses thoroughly. Usually, you will find at least one that you like.
5. Don’t forget about electives
Gen eds and electives are two different things. Your college may require 30-40 credits of general education and around 60-70 credits specific to your major. That still leaves around 20-30 credits of elective courses that can be used for anything.
If you are a finance major with a particular affinity for history, don’t worry that you are only required to take two history courses to fulfill the gen ed. Use some of your electives to take classes you like, because in the end, college is supposed to be fun, and there is no such thing as a useless class.
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