Despite a genuine commitment to a liberal arts mission, at times it seems easier said than done. On one hand, public fretting (some of it well founded) about unemployed and apparently unemployable college graduates has made some suggest that a college education should focus more of its coursework on preparation for a specific career. On the other hand, the proliferation of knowledge and sub-disciplines within many academic fields translates into more knowledge that faculty often believe (sometimes rightly) need to be added to the range of concepts covered within a particular major. Both of these tangible pressures bolster the argument for expanding the footprint of the major. By comparison, the counter-arguments for maintaining a robust general education program tend to be more abstract and sadly, rarely stand a chance.
Two trends (one macro and one micro) highlight the declining clout of general education. First, the number of U.S. colleges classified as liberal arts colleges has dropped substantially in the last several decades (from 212 to 130). Most of this change involves institutions that expanded their educational offerings into more vocational and pre-professional programs. Closer to home, the proportion of Augustana students who earn at least two majors continues to increase (over 45% of graduates in 2014). In the case of Augustana students, our double majors don’t stay in college longer than everyone else, they just concentrate more of the credits they earn in specific areas.
During last year’s conversations about the relative impact of general education and potential improvements that could be made, some seemed to suggest that our general education program was not in need of revisions. One of the questions posed was whether or not our senior survey data might provide evidence to inform this conversation. Now that we have a third year of senior survey findings, I thought it might be useful to explore the responses to the survey’s general education items and look for any patterns or hints of trends. I’m not sure that the findings below provide definitive answers, but I hope they will further inform the discussion and direction of the general education conversation at Augustana.
The Augustana Senior Survey includes six questions intended to assess the nature of students’ experiences in their non-major or general education courses. Interestingly, the lowest average response score over the last three years came from the 2014 seniors on five of the six questions. Further analysis indicated that the drop from highest to lowest score was statistically significant for four of those questions. They are listed in the table below.
|Senior Survey Gen Ed Question||2012||2013||2014|
|The skills I learned in my general education courses helped me succeed in my major courses. (response options – strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)||3.55||3.43||3.38|
|My classes outside my major(s) challenged me to produce my best academic work. (response options – strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)||3.57||3.53||3.44|
|In your non-major courses, about how often were you asked to include different perspectives (different races, religions, genders, political beliefs, etc.) in class discussions or writing assignments? (response options – never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often)||3.50||3.52||3.41|
|About how often did you discuss ideas from your non-major courses with faculty members outside of class? (response options – never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often)||2.88||2.82||2.76|
I fully admit that three years of data is not nearly enough to make predictive claims or produce some sort of smoking gun. However, it is enough data to begin triangulating these findings with others (everything from observational to rigorously quantitative data) and look for evidence of multiple findings moving in the same direction. This can be a particularly effective way to identify early “shadows” in the data and give us time to consider their implications in a less reactive environment.
It would be entirely reasonable to expect some fluctuation on average response scores for individual items across multiple years. But it struck me as curious that the responses to so many of the general education items – questions that I think represent the way that we imagine our general education courses functioning at a liberal arts college – moved together in a negative direction.
What might explain this phenomenon? Is it a function of our students feeling an increased pressure to focus on career preparation? Could it be a function of our own subtle leanings toward areas of our own expertise? Or could it be that we lack a clear sense of exactly how our general education requirements link together to form the kind of integrated breadth of understanding that would ultimately produce the ideal liberally educated student?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But these findings did make me think again about our discussion of the role of general education and the degree to which we may need to revisit our commitment to 1) the role of general education and 2) the way we ensure that our general education program helps students develop all of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that we know are critical to their success after graduation.
Make it a good day,