Redistribution of Requirements

Most colleges are requiring more than "cafeteria menu" approach to undergraduate education, survey finds.
May 15, 2009

A century after Harvard University popularized the idea of combining "depth" (the major) with "breadth" (distribution requirements) in undergraduate education, most colleges are moving past that model, a new survey finds.

The survey is being released today by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, an organization that has championed the idea that general education for undergraduates needs to include much more than distribution requirements. The survey found that the majority of colleges now add "integrative" features to traditional breadth requirements. Those features include programs for freshmen and seniors, cross-disciplinary programs, and courses designed to promote general education beyond the traditional introductory course.

While some colleges continue to rely on distribution requirements alone to promote general education, they are now in the distinct minority (although there is more support for the traditional approach at research universities than in other sectors of higher education).

How Colleges Design General Education Requirements

Sector Distribution Model Only Distribution Plus 'Integrative' Features Other Features Only
Bachelor's 14% 68% 16%
Master's 11% 68% 18%
Doctoral/research 23% 55% 19%
All 15% 64% 18%

The results come from a survey of chief academic officers at 433 colleges and universities that are members of AAC&U, a group that includes a range of sectors, missions, regions and sizes of institutions.

One common theme the survey found was that general education requirements are very much in flux in American higher education. Only 11 percent of institutions reported that they were not making revisions and had not recently made any. In contrast, 18 percent have adopted changes in the last five years, 30 percent are assessing learning outcomes to consider possible changes, 22 percent are in the process of discussing proposals for changes, and 19 percent are conducting formal reviews of their requirements.

Because this is the first time AAC&U has conducted a survey on precisely these issues, there is no comparison group to show the changing concept of general education. But a study by University of California at Los Angeles researchers in 1989 found that 93 percent of colleges relied on distribution requirements for general education (although some of the colleges in that group would probably meet the AAC&U current survey's measures for adding in "integrative" features).

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the association, said in an interview that it was "significant and heartening to see colleges and universities moving away en masse from general education focused on distribution requirements." She said distribution requirements at many colleges are seen as something to get through, not as significant intellectual experiences. "It's as though the front door for general education is blocked by a confusing passageway," she said.

Educators at some colleges that are moving away from distribution requirements said they had never been convinced of their effectiveness. With traditional distribution requirements of specified credits in the humanities, social sciences and physical and biological sciences, "all of the courses tend to be 'introduction to discipline X' and you have lots of bottom-heavy, 100-level courses," said Judy J. Tizon, associate provost of undergraduate education at the University of Southern Maine. "Students aren't dumb. They will try to conserve their energy and take courses that are easy and that are convenient for them."

Southern Maine is in the process of moving from a traditional distribution approach to general education in which there are requirements throughout a student's undergraduate career. At the beginning of the program, students have to take a breadth of courses in areas such as science, sociocultural analysis, writing and quantitative reasoning. But they take an interdisciplinary "mid-career seminar," three thematic courses in their junior and senior years, a diversity-related course, and a senior "capstone" experience linked to their major.

Tizon said that it was significant that students would be working on general education simultaneously with their majors, not viewing them as separate forms of education. Since students will be learning critical thinking and communication skills as they learn more in their majors, they will be applying these skills in coursework that relates to their long-term interests or careers, she noted.

With the traditional system, "students just see a set of boxes to check and they don't know why and they don't like it. The faculty here has tried to design something that will give students fundamental skills, higher level thinking skills throughout their time."

Stephen Langendorfer, who directs general education at Bowling Green State University, said that institution is just beginning a shift from a traditional distribution requirement to something more. What the process has revealed so far, he said, is that faculty members care more about learning outcomes -- can students think critically, communicate effectively, solve problems -- than whether they have taken two humanities or natural sciences courses.

As a first step, while leaving the old requirements on the books, Bowling Green is identifying the learning outcomes that the university cares about that are associated with various courses. The idea is to get students thinking about "can I demonstrate that I am a critical thinker?" and not just about requirements, he said.

While the colleges in the survey are moving away from a reliance on distribution requirements, they are embracing other tools to promote general education. Asked about characteristics that would describe parts of their general education offerings well, 60 percent cited "global courses," 58 percent cited first-year seminars, 56 percent cited courses on diversity topics and 51 percent cited interdisciplinary courses.

The report on the survey stresses that colleges taking a broader view of general education tend to focus on defined learning outcomes (some of them discipline based) even as they stop relying on disciplinary lists of courses as the sole means to provide general education.

The following tables show the proportion of colleges saying that these areas of knowledge and intellectual skills are covered by their learning outcomes, which in turn influence the general education requirements.

Areas of Knowledge in Learning Goals

Humanities 72%
Science 71%
Social sciences 70%
Global cultures 68%
Mathematics 68%
Diversity in the United States 57%
Technology 48%
U.S. history 39%
Languages 33%
Sustainability 18%

Intellectual Skills in Learning Goals

Writing skills 77%
Critical thinking 74%
Quantitative reasoning 71%
Oral communication 69%
Intercultural skills 62%
Information literacy 59%
Ethical reasoning 59%
Civic engagement 53%
Application of learning 52%
Research skills 51%


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