Students Aren’t Learning Life Skills; Colleges Need to Teach Them

When students think back to their college days, they may remember a philosophy class that made them question their life or an art class they thought would be easy, but gave them the most stress that semester.

However, when graduates get a job and need to set up a retirement account, apply for a credit card, or find housing, few have learned those skills from their time in college. North Carolina State University, for example, offers hundreds of courses in their General Education Program (GEP), but life skills aren’t the focus of any of them.

If NC State revamped its general education requirements, it could cut out fluff classes, teach students important life skills, and strengthen the liberal arts.

NC State requires 120-125 credits to graduate, depending on the department in which students study. As of 2009, 39 credits must be from the GEP course list. NC State explained the benefits of required courses as shaping well-rounded individuals for an interconnected world.

The cost of those core courses, though, adds up. With tuition and fees, NC State is the second most expensive public university in North Carolina. Full-time students will pay $8,497 for the 39 required GEP credits. Out-of-state students will pay approximately $34,650. Yet, when students look at GEP classes, they find many faddish or unorthodox offerings.

The current course catalog for GEP classes leaves much to be desired. Rather than educating students to be independent and well-rounded, students can choose from narrowly tailored courses that are fashionable but don’t prepare them for their postgraduate life. Survey courses have disappeared; now, students can study niche interests such as:

  • History of Rock 1: 1950s-1970s
  • History of Rock II: 1980s-Present
  • Plants in Folklore, Myth, and Religion
  • Concert Dance History, and
  • Ultimate Frisbee

Gen ed requirements have been criticized as unnecessary by students, professors, journalists, and others. Some of those critiques go too far—core class requirements are valuable for ensuring that young people leave college with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen and how they can contribute to society.

However, NC State can better prepare its students by teaching practical skills alongside a traditional liberal arts approach. Done correctly, a core curriculum furthers a university’s mission and students will appreciate it in the future even if they complain about taking classes outside their major.

The GEP mission statement explains that the program lays the “foundation for involvement in their communities as responsible citizens and leaders,” but it lacks the very courses that would help achieve this mission. The only courses to further that develop students’ practical skills appear to be two classes on public speaking and personal finance.

NC State doesn’t offer a course on insurance, credit, taxes, personal nutrition, first aid, cybersecurity, or automobile maintenance, for example. NC State already requires credits in mathematical sciences, health and exercise studies, social sciences, and interdisciplinary perspectives; if leaders wanted to redesign the GEP, they could add courses focused on life skills without needing to actually change what’s required. Health and exercise studies could focus on personal nutrition and first aid, mathematical sciences could cover personal finance and taxes, etc.

The failure of many general education requirements is shown by where graduates do and don’t succeed.

A study completed by research scientist Alison Head of the University of Washington revealed that although college graduates are equipped for positions in their field and often find employment, they struggle with life skills such as money management and household repairs. The research also noted that recent graduates struggle to remain lifelong learners. That shows where colleges often fall short: in teaching students how to independently live and grow as people.

Universities that offer courses on life skills are meeting a practical need, but they are also accepting the responsibility to create lifelong learners.

NC State consistently ranks well when it comes to their veterinary medicine program, their endowment size, and their ability to get research sponsored by private industries. Those rankings are commendable and show that the university can accomplish great things where it prioritizes excellence. They have not put forth as much effort, however, in general education.

If NC State prioritized gen ed learning, it could improve its graduates’ preparedness for life. Students would learn how to pursue their own interests and succeed, become more self-reliant, and push themselves when an employer or authority figure isn’t doing it for them.

Some universities have started to incorporate life skills into its core curriculum. Boston University’s general education program has some overlap with NC State, but also includes an “Intellectual Toolkit” category where students can take life skills courses such as Healthy Cooking on a Budget, Applied Mathematics for Personal Finance, and Intro to Adulting, which covers health care, housing, and relationships.

Those courses are the result of a university-wide review process of its general education program based on student feedback about the desire for life skills-oriented courses. This type of feedback isn’t limited to students at Boston, either.

Students at Kansas State University organized a variety of workshops that the school ran through its health center. Their most recent lineup of workshops included learning the process of voting and elections in the United States and car maintenance.

Although not a part of the university’s formal curriculum, it’s a response to student demand.

Universities that offer courses on life skills are meeting a practical need, but they are also accepting the responsibility to create lifelong learners. Students will be able to take the lessons learned from their life skills courses—addressing needs, utilizing resources, and solving problems—and apply them to other areas in their life.

If NC State wants to show its commitment to a liberal arts education, taking life skills seriously is a good place to start. Some critics may say students should learn those skills before coming to college, but many students didn’t. Colleges can correct a failing in their education. After all, public universities have a duty to the public to produce good citizens that advance the interests of North Carolinians.

Anna Martina is a North Carolina native and a North Carolina State University alumna, where she studied political science and social work. She is now the John Blundell Fellow at the John William Pope Foundation. Her policy interests include redistricting reform, higher education reform, and government ethics.