This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As a college dean, I spend a lot of time listening to student comments and criticisms. Curiously, a frequent target of their ire is the distinguishing feature of an American-accredited degree: general education. Why, students wonder, are they forced to take courses in fields unrelated to their major? Or, as one student recently put it, "Why is general education a thing? Isn't it a waste of my time?"

The short answer is: it can be. If students experience general education as a laundry list of disjointed requirements, if academic advising is deficient or structures for integrating knowledge and skills are lacking, then the purpose of general education will be lost on students; and the intended impact will be minimal. Indeed, students routinely treat general education as an annoying obstacle to "get out of the way" on their path to more important matters: the major.

Of course, not all students are so critical of "gen ed." Some students enjoy the variety of subjects and professors; others value developing core skills in writing, speaking and reasoning. Many "undecided" students happily use gen ed to explore majors while accumulating credits for graduation. There are even moments of serendipity: After a study abroad or an inspiring course, students can be transformed to the point of changing majors and life direction. That is my story: After a magical year in southern France, I dropped pre-engineering for French literature — and I never looked back.

Most students, however, perceive general education as invasive (typically it occupies up to a third or more of the total credit hours for graduation) and incoherent, and they struggle to see its relevance to their personal or career goals.

That is because students are chiefly preoccupied with career preparation (89 percent cite it as the No. 1 reason for college), and they view the choice of "major" as their most urgent, career-defining decision. Given this line of thinking, should we be surprised if students consider requirements outside the major as extraneous?

Make no mistake: I am not suggesting that the choice of major is unimportant, especially for students with a passion or those seeking professional licensure in highly technical fields. One cannot easily become an engineer, an accountant or a nurse without the right degree (although one can be admitted to medical school, law school and business school with almost any major).

At the same time, many students don't know their passion and they will often languish in vocational majors for which they are unprepared or ill suited. They do this because of parental or peer pressure and because they hold what the authors of "Designing Your Life," Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, call the "dysfunctional belief" that "your degree determines your career."

The facts tell a different story. How many students are aware, for example, that 75 percent of college graduates work in fields unrelated to their major, that 35 percent to 40 percent of entry-level hiring is "open to all majors," and that around 70 percent of hiring requires bundles of skills associated with humanities and liberal arts learning typically cultivated in gen ed programs? How many students would approach their choice of major and their gen ed coursework differently if they had this information in advance?

The takeaway point here is that there are many different and surprising pathways to a rewarding career and that a vocational major alone is no longer sufficient for long-term success. Today's creative economy increasingly seeks professionals with technical skills but who can also communicate effectively, think and adapt nimbly to changing conditions, design innovative solutions to problems, work collaboratively in teams, think across disciplinary and cultural divides and who possess a range of valuable "soft" and "crossover" skills.

Recent labor research confirms this point. The CEO of Burning Glass argues that some of the biggest growth areas require flexible thinkers "who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas." And Phil Gardner, labor researcher at Michigan State University, puts it like this: "There are really only two choices for graduates who want a lot of options, to be a technically savvy liberal arts graduate or a liberally educated technical graduate."

In the Telitha E. Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities at Weber State University, we are heeding the call to revitalize general education for the 21st century so that our students are more likely to graduate with "a lot of options." Several faculty members are actively engaged in campus-wide "town hall" conversations on strategies of gen ed improvement while offering new cross-disciplinary seminars to help students responsibly connect academic learning both to the local community and to the globalized world beyond.

I invite you to join the conversation on gen ed at https://telithaelindquistcollege.wordpress.com/.

Scott Sprenger is dean of the Weber State University Telitha E. Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities.

comments powered by Disqus