What is General Education? Definition, Requirements & A List of Courses

College students tend to think of general education subjects as mere extenders to their occupation-appropriate courses (Vander Schee, 2011). This mentality blinds them to how these courses can enhance learning in their chosen academic major. As a result, many students take these courses for granted and fail to fully imbibe what each has to offer. This is often an unhealthy departure from how serious they are with their major subjects.

In reality, general education is more than what it is often perceived to be. Fundamentally, the purpose of education is not to train the students for a specific job but equips them with the skills they need to live life (Walters & Bockorn, 2018). As corporations seek graduates who can lead, communicate, analyze problems, and propose solutions, students need to be immersed in fields that would widen and deepen their perspectives; and such is what is general education for.

This article discusses the basics and complexities of the general education program. Specifically, it lays down the general education meaning, the relevance of general education courses in light of today's online education trends, the list of general education classes, and the factors to consider in choosing general education classes. By having a better understanding of the general education's rationale, one can have a more fulfilling journey learning new life skills.

Guide to General Education Table of Contents

  1. What is General Education?
  2. How relevant are the General Education courses?
  3. List of General Education Classes

What is General Education?

Back in the 1800s, when the world ushered in the Industrial Age and a number of new technologies and business models arose, schools and universities designed a new curriculum model that would answer “What should every student know?” This new college curriculum brought together various arts and sciences subjects, bordering between the liberal arts and vocational appeals, to teach students the practicality of knowledge linked to professional practice (Duncan, 2014). Courses in this new model include both the academic major and general education. And by the 20th century, general education programs were widely implemented at the forefront of innovative curricula in colleges and universities (O'Banion, 2016).

What is general education in college? In a broad sense, general education is defined as a program that develops students’ general knowledge, literacy, skills, and competencies to equip them with the foundation for lifelong learning and advanced academic curricula (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2012). Basically, this program provides students with a strong educational footing for an undergraduate degree. General education may also be introduced in some institutions as ‘gen ed,’ ‘core curriculum,’ or ‘shared experience’ (Pearson Accelerated Pathways, 2015).

General education degree types consist mainly of courses in the liberal arts, including various disciplines in the arts and humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, and sometimes foreign language. So, what are general education courses? Different colleges and universities have different policies for implementing general education requirements. Some institutions prescribe a set of general education courses for a certain academic program; while some incorporate a ‘cafeteria approach’ where students take several courses outside their major (Hothem, 2013). A combination of prescribed and ‘cafeteria-style’ courses is also common in some universities.

Not only do institutions have distinctions in the type of approach they integrate into their general education curriculum, but they also differ when it comes to the number of general education courses they require their students to take. Primarily, the general education curriculum covers a third to a half of a degree. The number of credits it requires can comprise anywhere from 42 to 60 credits of the typical 120 credits needed to earn a bachelor’s degree (Pearson Accelerated Pathways, 2015). These courses under the general education requirements are typically taken during the early years of college life, although some could be offered as third- and fourth-year courses.

Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018

How relevant are the General Education courses?

Rooted in the concept of learning as both a formative and transformative process, the general education curriculum is designed to provide students with the essential foundation for lifelong learning. In addition, it develops students’ skills and characters that will help them achieve their academic pursuits and become engaged citizens and ethical leaders in a global society (Vander Schee, 2011). In a way, it can be viewed as thought leadership development through the mastery of foundational subjects. With this, it is only important that the courses under the general education program can expand students’ fundamental knowledge, abilities, and aesthetic sensibilities.

In a sense, the general education program aims to produce a student who:

  • can think and write clearly, effectively, and critically, and who can communicate with precision, cogency, and force
  • has a critical appreciation of the ways by which we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, of society, and of ourselves
  • has a broad knowledge of other cultures and other times, and is able to make decisions based on reference to the wider world and the historical forces that have shaped it;
  • has some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems
  • has achieved depth in some fields of knowledge (World Bank, 2000, 84).

Along with these objectives, the program thrives to evolve amid the fast-paced economy. And in the Information Age, being literate is not enough to be successful. The 21st century requires certain skills that today’s students need to flourish in their careers (Stauffer, 2020). The following skills and competencies are what is general education trying to equip students with.

  • Learning skills (critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication)
  • Literacy skills (information literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy)
  • Life skills (flexibility, leadership, initiative, productivity, and social skills)

List of General Education Classes

Although colleges and universities implement different approaches to the general education curriculum, they commonly offer the same categories of classes to fulfill the requirement (Vander Schee, 2011). Here are some of the groups of courses that prevail among the majority of higher education institutions.

English Language and Literature

Courses under the English Language and Literature category ensure that learners develop their writing, communication, and critical thinking skills taught in various writing degrees. They are also taught to appreciate and critique literature, assuming that these will help them to become more analytical and creative (Liu & Yang, 2017). Colleges typically require three to six credits of English, including the following subjects.

  • College composition
  • Oral communication
  • Literary criticism

Arts and Humanities

By and large, Arts and Humanities consist of a broad range of subjects. Such classes allow students to pursue their interests while they explore a diverse range of human cultures, modes of thought, and bodies of knowledge. Students who take these courses are expected to learn to think critically, express themselves clearly, and analyze new information (Strauss, 2017). Each student is mostly required to take three to six Arts and Humanities credits of the subjects listed below.

  • Arts
  • Music
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • Ethics
  • History

Social Sciences

Social sciences courses give the learners in-depth insights into how humans interact with each other and how they develop meaningful relationships. Here, students are taught to build strong analytical and problem-solving skills by adopting qualitative and quantitative approaches to learn more about the human world (Strauss, 2017). Listed below are the subjects that fall under the Social Sciences.

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • History
  • Economics
  • Political science
  • Government
  • Geography

Natural Science

Like Arts and Humanities, the Natural Science category encompasses a wide variety of interests. These subjects help students understand and apply scientific methodologies in analyzing empirical data (Lamanauskas, 2013). For this reason, even students pursuing fields outside of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) should possess basic science knowledge in any of the following courses.

  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Ecology
  • Geology
  • Environmental science
  • Astronomy
  • Physics
  • Oceanography
  • Microbiology


Mathematics helps the students have better problem-solving skills as it encourages logical reasoning and mental rigor. Furthermore, this field of study equips the learners with an effective way of building the mental discipline needed for improving analytical skills (Martin-Raugh, et al., 2016). Given this reason, most degrees require three to six math credits including the following subjects.

  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Calculus
  • Trigonometry
  • Statistics
  • Quantitative analysis


A number of subjects that were not constituted in the curriculum before are now being introduced to 21st century higher education programs. These include the category Diversity. Diversity courses teach students to value and appreciate other cultures and beliefs, thus, promoting the understanding of diversity. Such subjects provide students with the analytical skills needed to understand issues of diversity, like structural inequalities (Ranaut, 2017). Listed below are the subjects under the Diversity category.

  • Cultural diversity
  • Social responsibility
  • Gender studies
  • World religions

Foreign Language

With the continuous globalization of the world’s economy, being proficient in a foreign language is not only beneficial but is also becoming an edge in the professional context. Aside from that, learning a foreign language can help students improve their memory, problem-solving skills, and spatial abilities while also expanding their worldview  (Strauss, 2017). Depending on the college, a number of foreign language courses may be offered, including the following.

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German
  • Portuguese
  • Japanese

Source: Hart Research Associates, 2013

Choosing the Right General Education Classes

Knowing the importance of general education in academic pursuits and beyond, students will find it easier to foster motivation for learning general education classes. With the limited requirements to fulfill and a large number of classes to choose from, students might get stumped on what general courses they should take especially in light of the disruptions shaking up higher learning these days. In picking subjects, one must select courses that pique his/her interest. A student should use the general education course as a learning opportunity. Thus, it will be better to not choose a general education class just because it seems easy. Instead, select those that are not only applicable to one's major subjects but also those that can truly help in life after college. One should also be able to resolve uncertainties early on. If he or she is into music and technology, for example, "Is the music technology degree worth it?" would be an important question.

While going through the classes, you might discover an academic career is to your liking. In that case, a proper bachelor's degree in education to go along with an online master's degree in higher education could well be in your best interest.



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