The Importance of Core Courses

Students Are Graduating Without Skills in Common Areas

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A report commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reveals that colleges are not requiring students to take courses in several core areas. And as a result, these students are less prepared to be successful in life.

The report, “What Will They Learn?” surveyed students in over 1,100 U.S. colleges and universities – public and private – and found that an alarming number of them were taking “lightweight” courses to satisfy general education requirements.

The report also found the following about the colleges:

96.8% don’t require economics

87.3% don’t require an intermediate foreign language

81.0% don’t require a basic U.S. history or government

38.1% don’t require college-level math

65.0% don’t require literature

The 7 Core Areas

What are the core areas identified by ACTA that college students should take classes in – and why?

Composition: writing-intensive classes that focus on grammar

Literature: observant reading and reflection that develops critical thinking skills

Foreign language: to understand different cultures

U.S. Government or History: to be responsible, knowledgeable citizens

Economics: to understand how resources are connected globally

Mathematics: to gain numeracy skills applicable in the workplace and in life

Natural Sciences: to develop skills in experimentation and observation 

Even some of the most highly-rated and expensive schools are not requiring students to take classes in these core areas. For example, one school that charges almost $50,000 a year in tuition does not require students to take classes in any of the 7 core areas. In fact, the study notes that the schools that receive an “F” grade based on how many core classes they require charge 43% higher tuition rates than the schools that receive a grade of “A.”

Core Deficiencies

So what’s causing the shift? The report notes that some professors prefer to teach classes related to their particular research area. And as a result, students end up choosing from a wide-ranging selection of courses. For example, at one college, while students are not required to take U.S. History or U.S. Government, they have an Intercultural Domestic Studies requirement that may include such courses as “Rock ‘n’ Roll in Cinema.”  To fulfill the economics requirement, students at one school can take, “The Economics of Star Trek,” while “Pets in Society” qualifies as a Social Sciences requirement.

At another school, students can take “Music in American Culture” or “America Through Baseball” to fulfill their requirements.

At another college, English majors don’t have to take a class devoted to Shakespeare. 

Some schools don’t have any core requirements at all. One school notes that it “does not impose a particular course or subject on all students.” On one hand, perhaps its commendable that some colleges are not forcing students to take certain classes. On the other hand, are freshmen really in a position to decide which courses would be most beneficial to them?

According to the ACTA report, close to 80% of freshmen don’t know what they want to major in. And another study, by EAB, found that 75% of students will change majors before they graduate. Some critics advocate not letting students choose a major until their second year.  If students aren’t even sure what degree they plan to pursue, it might be unrealistic to expect them – especially as freshmen – to effectively gauge which core classes they need to be successful.

Another problem is that schools don’t update their catalogs on a regular basis, and when students and their parents are trying to determine the requirements, they may not be viewing accurate information. Also, some colleges and universities don’t even list definite courses in same cases. Instead there is a vague introductory phrase “courses may include,” so the classes listed in the catalog may or may not be offered.

However, the glaring lack of information gained from taking college-level core classes is evident. A Payscale survey asked managers to identify the skills that they thought college grads lack the most. Among the responses, writing skills are identified as the top skill missing in action among college grads. Public speaking skills are in second place. But both of these skills could be developed if students were required to take core courses.

In other surveys, employers have lamented the fact that college graduates don’t have critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills – all issues that would be addressed in a core curriculum.

Other disturbing findings: 20% of students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree were unable to accurately calculate the costs of ordering office supplies, according to the National Survey of America’s College Students. 

While schools, boards of trustees, and policy makers need to make the necessary adjustments to require a core curriculum, college students cannot wait for these changes. They (and their parents) must research schools as thoroughly as possible, and students must choose to take the classes they need instead of selecting lightweight courses.