Facing internal and external pressures to streamline the general education curriculum, Wichita State University’s Faculty Senate approved an amended proposal to trim the institution’s program from 42 to 36 credits. The original proposal was 33 credits -- just shy of the Higher Learning Commission’s 30-credit minimum (with some qualifications) for gen ed programs.
Wichita State’s entire faculty will vote on the 36-credit proposal today. If it’s approved, the university will be part of a cluster of institutions that have revised -- and in so doing, pruned -- their gen ed curricula in recent years.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which advocates for liberal education, said institutions are facing mandates from states and other policy makers to get students through their degree programs and into jobs faster. And a common perception among those policy makers is that jobs require technical training from within the major, rather than the broad-based, cross-cutting skills for which AAC&U advocates -- and which gen ed programs generally attempt to instill.
But that doesn’t mean that cutting a gen ed program’s number of required credits is necessarily a bad thing, Pasquerella said. In fact, the AAC&U has no recommended minimum number of credit hours for gen ed. Instead, it encourages institutions to emphasize competencies such as oral communication, moral imagination, working with diverse groups and critical thinking throughout gen ed programs, whatever their size. Beyond gen ed, she said, institutions should incorporate these values into course work for majors, as well.
“That kind of preparation is important now more than ever.”
Even as colleges and universities are trimming their gen ed programs, data from AAC&U indicate that they are simultaneously paying much more attention to gen ed features such as common intellectual experiences, thematic courses, learning communities and active learning.
Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, director of Wichita State’s School of Music and a member of the Senate’s ad hoc committee on the gen ed revision, said, “I don’t really think that credit hours should have anything to do with what gen ed does. That’s an artificial measuring stick.” At the same, he said, the original 33-credit proposal was something that everyone on the committee -- from those who wanted 30 credits to those who wanted 42 -- could agree on.
A faculty survey reviewed by the committee also revealed a sense that less was more. Just 17 percent of 305 survey respondents said they wanted to keep a 42-credit, or 14-course, program. The biggest share of respondents, some 38 percent, said they wanted just 30 credits, or 10 courses. Still, the Senate voted to narrowly to make the gen ed program 36 credits ahead of the full faculty vote.
Reasons for Change
The impetus for Wichita State’s revision was a 2017 directive by the Kansas State Board of Regents that all degree programs be capped at 120 credit hours, in keeping with “best practices for on-time completion,” with case-by-case exceptions. This was not a problem in many majors. But in engineering and a number of arts programs accredited by outside disciplinary bodies, it was. A degree in biomedical engineering, for example, runs at 128 or 129 credits, after general education and discipline-specific requirements. A bachelor of music degree in vocal performance entails 86 credit hours, including several non-credit-bearing recital requirements. Add in 42 credits of gen ed, and that’s 128 credit hours.
To make things fit, some programs had to cut credit hours without cutting content (hence the zero-credit requirements) or cut content, to the detriment of the major.
Kamran Rokhsaz, professor of aerodynamics and another member of the ad hoc committee, said that over time, in engineering and the fine arts, “every cut in the size [of] the curriculum came at the cost of cutting the technical content.”
So giving students some or more flexibility to explore intellectually became another goal of the revision.
Another reason to rethink Wichita State’s gen ed program? It’s old. Whereas many institutions revise their curricula every 10 to 15 years (about the time its seems to take the current faculty to start wondering who made these decisions in the first place, and why) Wichita State’s has been in place for since at least the 1980s.
One last reason for the revision: Wichita State’s program is relatively complicated, with three “tiers” of requirements, by type and course level. By contrast, many of Wichita State’s peer and aspirational institutions have slimmer curricula that are much easier for students to understand. Kansas State University, for example, has the K-State 8, delineating eight disciplinary areas and perspectives students must sample. The University of Kansas has the KU Core, made up of six distribution areas, such as critical thinking, quantitative literacy and social responsibility and ethics. Wichita State also has a large share of transfer students -- half of all undergraduates -- highlighting the need for an easy-to-navigate program.
The ad hoc gen ed committee’s first decision was whether to scrap the campus’s existing curriculum and start from scratch, or to adjust it to meet student needs and the state board mandate. The group spent considerable time debating the pros and cons of each course of action. It eventually decided that it was in the institution’s best interest to work within the existing framework and meet the state mandate sooner rather than later, said Jeffrey Jarman, director of the Elliott School of Communication and chair of the ad hoc committee.
“We voted to maintain the goals of our system,” he said. “So the rest of the time we were talking about, ‘How can we balance the value of gen ed that we want all of our students to have with the needs of some of our programs?’”
Wichita State’s outcomes for general education are a blend of traditional distribution requirements and advanced outcomes. They are, and will remain: have acquired knowledge in the arts, humanities and natural and social sciences; think critically and independently; write and speak effectively; and employ analytical reasoning and problem-solving techniques.
The 42-credit program requires 12 credit hours of “Foundation” courses -- including six hours of English composition, three hours of public speaking and three hours of college-level math -- along with one fine arts introductory course, one intro course in two different humanities fields, and one intro course in two different social and behavioral sciences.
Also required are one intro course in two different math and natural sciences fields (one must be in biology, chemistry, geology or physics), and a total of three advanced study courses. The program classifies intro courses as Tier 2 and advanced study and issues and perspective courses as Tier 3.
The proposal up for a vote today includes still include four “Foundation” courses. But distribution-style requirements are cut to one course each from the fine arts, humanities, social sciences and math or natural sciences, from two in some. The plan also combines what are currently labeled Tier 2 and Tier 3 courses, so that any course approved from general education would count.
There are four additional electives in the proposal, from at least two divisions. One must be a first-year seminar (this is already required for most students, but the previous, 36-credit proposal counted it differently).
One course in the major can count toward general education, and at least nine credit hours must be at the 300 level.
Sternfeld-Dunn said that conversations about gen ed curricula always involve the depth of study versus breadth of study question. And whereas the current system is “more depth focused, which has some benefits, but some downsides, the proposal we have has some electives built into it but allows for some exploration. The compromise we reached as a committee is this would allow students to choose -- do they want breadth or depth?”
Will the plan be approved? Jarman said the proposal passed by a clear majority at the Faculty Senate, so it stands a good chance.
Or, as Rokhsaz said via email, “we as a university had a problem with the unwieldy size of our general education program and it was time to review/revise it.”