What Do Students Have to Learn to Graduate?

A young man I know who attends UNC-Chapel Hill recently told me, “People would be amazed if they knew how easy it is to get a degree from Chapel Hill without really learning anything.” He’s probably right, and much of the blame for that should be placed on the erosion of the college curriculum.

On September 20, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy released a study conducted by Gary C. Brasor, Associate Director of the National Association of Scholars. In the study, he examined the general education requirements of 11 of the universities in the UNC system and found them, on the whole, to be weak.

For students to graduate, they usually must earn 124 credits, of which about a third are “general education.” The idea behind general education requirements is that college students should have a broad, balanced exposure to key fields of knowledge outside their major.

The trouble is that many colleges and universities have so watered down their general education curriculum that it no longer fulfills its function. Students can graduate without getting anything like a well-rounded basic education. The study, which can be read in full at www.popecenter.org, shows that students can earn their degrees without ever taking courses that used to be regarded as pillars of a college education.

Start with American History. Of the 11 institutions analyzed, not one requires students to take a single course in American History. Of course, American History is one of the options. Students can take it, but they can just as readily satisfy the history requirement by taking a course on some aspect of African or Asian history. There’s nothing wrong with studying, say, the history of the Ottoman Empire, but it would be better to ensure that all students have some grasp of the basics of our own history first.

Natural science used to be one of the great challenges for many students, obligating them to do laboratory work as well as mastering the essentials of biology, chemistry, or physics. Such courses are still required for science majors, but many of the UNC schools have created far less demanding courses for students who aren’t science majors, such as PHYS 16 at Chapel Hill, a course described as “Demystifying the workings of objects such as CD players, microwave ovens, lasers, computers, roller coasters, rockets, light bulbs, automobiles, clocks, etc.” Interesting, but students would learn a lot more about scientific method in a traditional science course.

When it comes to the Social Sciences, students are typically required to take three courses from a great array of offerings. They might choose fundamentals such as Principles of Economics or Introduction to Sociology, or they might instead choose very narrow, trendy courses. Many students seek out information about professors and courses so they can decide which courses are the most easy and fun.

Courses in western civilization are now optional, but most of the UNC schools studied have a “cultural diversity” requirement. Brasor writes that this is “at best a sign of interest in non-Western cultures, but all too often it’s an exercise in politically correct ‘education.’”

Great literature has similarly gone into the grab bag of courses that students may choose, but don’t have to. Foreign language requirements have also been relaxed, with only East Carolina still requiring the 12 credit hours that has long been regarded as the minimum needed to achieve a degree of basic competence in a language.

The crucial question that the report doesn’t attempt to answer is why the college curriculum has been watered down. The institutions of the UNC system are by no means unique in this regard. It’s a national trend. What explains it?

In my view, the reason is that colleges and universities are so eager to enroll students that they have turned themselves into retailers of a product – a degree – that many young Americans want just for itself and not because of any learning that it entails.

University of Florida professor James Twichell contends that universities have changed to suit student tastes: “What used to be the knowledge business has become the business of selling an experience, an affiliation, a commodity that can be manufactured, packaged, bought and sold.”

College degrees are today often little more than credentials that students want to get as cheaply as possible. Watering the curriculum down is one way for colleges and universities to satisfy their customers.

George Leef (georgeleef@popecenter.org) is the executive director of the Johhn W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.