Education

Addressing disconnects in gen ed (opinion)

In the 2022 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, published earlier this month by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research, provosts at 178 public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions had quite a lot to say about general education. Among the results that stood out:

  • Ninety percent of provosts somewhat or strongly agree that general education is a crucial part of any college degree.
  • Sixty-five percent believe that faculty members at their college are enthusiastic about teaching courses that are part of the general education requirements.
  • Only 32 percent believe that students at their college understand the purpose of general education requirements.
  • Seventy-five percent are satisfied with their institution’s general education program and requirements.
  • Sixty-seven percent say their college recently evaluated the effectiveness of its general education requirements.

These results raise a number of key questions about the state of general education and the prioritization of resources, financial and otherwise, to support general education programs. As Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, noted in an Inside Higher Ed article about the survey results, “Now, more than ever, we need to be transparent about why we are asking students to take general education courses and how the learning outcomes, skills and competencies embedded within these classes are not only connected but foundational to success in work, citizenship and life.”

What would it look like to invest in general education? At a base level, it would require viewing gen ed less as a series of requirements (the language used in the survey) and more as a coherent program with dedicated personnel drawn, in part at least, from the faculty and committed to program improvement. An intentional program requires, at minimum, curriculum management, assessment and policy development. A general education program that cuts across multiple departments and engages all undergraduate students is highly complex and requires unique and often much more intensive forms of communication and coordination than a traditional academic department or program.

Thinking about these different program elements carefully and investing in proper personnel and support creates opportunities to further engage faculty and highlight the intentionality that (hopefully) informs the program’s design and implementation. Small investments—course releases and summer salary at minimum—to compensate faculty directors have huge payoffs. Faculty members feel supported in doing work that they and the university believe is important, and students receive better communication about the program’s goals and better support in achieving its goals. Dedicated personnel also ensures that there is consistency in policy and communication and opens up the possibility of seeking grants to support program improvement that would enhance and advocate for other student success initiatives, including closing achievement gaps and improving graduation and retention rates.

These survey results also raise questions about marketing. If students don’t understand the value of gen ed, what is the marketing strategy? Is the gen ed program hidden on an obscure website that no one can find, or is it put out in front on marketing materials as an opportunity for students? Our students and their parents are increasingly anxious about the uncertainty of the future. In providing the foundation for lifelong learning and helping students develop a broad-based set of skills that are prized by employers and that will allow them to be flexible and adaptable long after they leave the university, gen ed can provide an important opportunity for our students if they—and their parents—are presented with the information.

Part of that communication needs to happen early on. Getting admissions and enrollment management, housing and residential life, student affairs, career services, advising, and other campus units involved in advancing a coherent message about general education can help students see how different parts of their university experience are connected. At Wayne State University, we’ve worked with key campus offices to craft materials and share messages about gen ed before and during orientation and created a new website called “Engaging Gen Ed” with expanding resources to support students, advisers and instructors. These efforts set a foundation and provide support for ongoing conversations students have with their advisers as they advance through their first year and beyond. Early, ongoing and consistent messaging is critical.

If we want to guarantee that the university lives up to the promises it makes to students about gen ed, it’s also important to incentivize and recognize instructors who are dedicated to general education teaching. Creating an annual award at Wayne State recognizing instructors for their contributions to the general education program has created new cultures of recognition and appreciation for this vital teaching work and expanded our conversation about teaching excellence to include adjunct instructors, lecturers, graduate teaching assistants and other instructors who do so much dedicated work with our students but who are often ineligible or overlooked for other university-level awards.

Celebrating what students learn in gen ed is another important way to highlight the importance of the program. When student awards and opportunities are only available within and through majors, students understandably read those programs as being more valuable to their educational experience.

We also ensure that we’re living up to our promises by undertaking thoughtful and robust assessment and program improvement efforts that engage instructors and other campus stakeholders in conversations about how best to support the success of our students. Program improvement requires thoughtful conversations about advising and student support services, but it also requires conversations about curriculum and pedagogy. Faculty members, in other words, have to be empowered to take the lead in program improvement at both the institutional and the classroom level, with the support of administrators. This might involve leveraging existing units like a center for teaching and learning. But it might also require dedicated initiatives that are specific to gen ed’s unique needs.

Throughout the provosts’ survey, there was a persistent disconnect between the perceived importance and the actual investment and resources dedicated to undergraduate education. University administrators—especially these days—are dealing with enormous demands and challenges. It’s easy to let something like gen ed float past. It’s probably not a fire that needs to be put out—at least not yet. But as we all rightly worry about various challenges facing higher ed today—the impending demographic cliff and its impact on enrollments, questions about the value of higher education, decreasing state funding, and increasing oversight—we also need to be thinking about the education we are providing students and how we communicate its value. That doesn’t require pandering. Yes, parents and students are worried about jobs after college. But that shouldn’t mean that we disinvest in general education and focus on career training. Instead, we need to increase our investments in core programs that help students become adaptable lifelong learners. And we need to explain that value to all members of our community early and often.

Supporting gen ed doesn’t have to mean allocating a large amount of money, but it does require attention and intention. Undergraduate education—and general education—is only successful if we listen to and empower the people doing that work. So, if you believe it’s important, how are you funding it? Who is involved in making the decisions? What is motivating our action? And how are we following up on our promises?

Jennifer Hart is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University. For the last three years, she has directed the university’s general education program as the chair of the General Education Oversight Committee and the planning/implementation fellow for gen ed assessment.

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