What Are General Education Courses at US Universities?

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By Kate H Knapp
Last updated on May 29, 2024

Learn all about foundation courses at US universities and how they can impact the structure of your degree program.

A group of university students and a professor sit around a table during a general education class at a US university

When a student enrolls at a liberal arts college in the USA, they are often required to complete a specific number of general education courses to earn a bachelor’s degree. These foundation course requirements are a big part of a student’s undergraduate degree — typically half the credits needed to graduate — and are mandatory for most students, regardless of major. Let’s take a closer look at these types of courses and why they are a necessary part of the core curriculum.

What Are General Education Courses? 

General education courses at US universities are designed to promote critical thinking across multiple subjects. By learning about subjects that differ from their chosen major, students gain a broader understanding of a range of topics. This equips them with highly desirable skills — communications, teamwork, ethics, time management, problem-solving, and more — while also providing necessary tools to positively impact the future. 

More than 90% of US universities teach these types of courses, which vary by school, and often include liberal arts subjects such as history, science, math, ethics, and English. Some universities have also recently added health and diversity classes as part of their core curriculum. 

What Are Some Examples of General Education?

To gain a better understanding of which foundation courses a college might require, here is a breakdown of core curriculum at four top-ranked Shorelight universities.

American University

Known as AU Core Curriculum, American University’s inquiry-based liberal arts education is designed to challenge a student’s curiosity, helping to prepare them for a complex world beyond the classroom. 

The curriculum has three parts: foundation courses, Habits of Mind courses, and integrative courses. Foundation courses are designed to help students achieve success while at AU, as well as challenge their curiosity in all areas of study. Required courses include AU Experience 1 and 2, Written Communication and Information Literacy 1, Quantitative Literacy 1, and Complex Problems.

Once students complete their foundation courses, they then must take Habits of Mind courses, which provide critical thinking skills that will serve them well with different challenges in school, work, or life. Courses cover five areas:

  1. Creative-Aesthetic Inquiry

  2. Cultural Inquiry

  3. Ethical Reasoning

  4. Natural-Scientific Inquiry

  5. Socio-Historical Inquiry

Finally, integrative courses combine foundation and Habits of Mind skills into their chosen major. Courses include Written Communication and Information Literacy 2, Quantitative Literacy 2, and Diversity and Equity.

AU Core culminates in a capstone, or signature project, that gives students an opportunity to showcase everything they have learned through their classes and life on campus.

American University believes “graduates should be equipped with certain intellectual skills and resources if they are to understand the complex dynamics of an increasingly connected global environment,” which is why the required AU Core courses are vital to a student’s education.

Auburn University

The main goal of Auburn University’s core curriculum is to give students an “educated appreciation of the natural world, of human life, and the interactions between them.” The major students choose determines which general education course must be taken, but all students are required to take either history or literature. Additional courses that may also be required include English composition, humanities, mathematics, science, and social science.

Students can expect to learn foundational skills including:

  • Locating, evaluating, and using information

  • Reading and thinking critically

  • Applying mathematical methods

  • Writing and revising for a variety of purposes

  • Creating and delivering oral presentations

  • Analyzing their own society and its relationship to the larger global context

  • Interacting in intercultural situations

  • Applying scientific principles

  • Analyzing and valuing creative artistic endeavors

Auburn University hopes that foundational courses like these help students “become lifelong learners and use their education to solve practical problems.”

Gonzaga University

As a four-year program required of all students, the core curriculum at Gonzaga University asks, “as students of a Catholic, Jesuit, and humanistic university, how do we educate ourselves to become women and men for a more just and humane global community?” The curriculum is then divided into a main theme and question for each of the four years of study. 

Year one focuses on “Understanding and Creating: How do we pursue knowledge and cultivate understanding?” Required courses include the First-Year Seminar — designed to help students make a smooth transition to college — plus Writing, Reasoning, Communication and Speech, Scientific Inquiry, and Mathematics. 

Year two turns students’ attention to “Being and Becoming: Who are we and what does it mean to be human?” Courses include Philosophy of Human Nature and Christianity and Catholic Traditions.

Year three is centered around “Caring and Doing: What principles characterize a well-lived life?” Required courses are Ethics and World/Comparative Religions.

Finally, year four is about “Imagining the Possible: What is our role in the world?” In the Core Integration Seminar, students learn to bring together Jesuit-education principles, core foundation course components, and their own learning.

Throughout the four years, Gonzaga students must also take broadening courses, designed to enhance the core themes and student appreciation for the humanities, fine arts, and social/behavioral sciences. Courses designated as global studies, writing enriched, or social justice strengthen essential knowledge and competencies.

In hopes of giving each student a well-rounded education, the core curriculum is structured around five outcomes:

  1. Basic modes of inquiry across disciplines of liberal learning

  2. Intercultural knowledge/competence

  3. Clear and persuasive communication

  4. Identify reason from faith and spirituality

  5. Formulate/articulate growth and social transformation

University of Utah

General education, according to the University of Utah, “provide(s) opportunities for connections.” With that in mind, the school created a core curriculum with four categories of learning outcomes: 

  1. Collaborate effectively

  2. Reason and act ethically

  3. Persist in addressing complex problems

  4. Respond creatively

Students are able to design their own degree program by selecting courses from one of the learning outcome categories that best aligns with the skills they hope to learn and develop. This gives them the opportunity to choose the experiences they want to have, as well as tailor their studies to their particular interests. 

For example, a student may choose to take most of their required courses in the Reason and Act Ethically category, which will allow them to tackle the ethical layers of problem-solving and action. Students may also opt to take courses across several categories to develop a varied and versatile set of skills.

There are three types of undergraduate courses required within each of the learning outcome categories: foundational, which covers fundamentals such as writing, mathematics, and quantitative reasoning; perspective, which includes fine arts, humanities, and sciences; and enhanced proficiency, with options like diversity, international studies, and languages.

General education courses account for more than 50% of student credit hours at the University of Utah, with university representatives stating that the program “is the strongest single lever [we] can use to enhance student success.”  

Why General Education Is Important

Though each university may offer a different core curriculum, every school understands the value general education brings to a student and how it is vital to the college experience. Taking a broad variety of classes ensures a student will be exposed to diverse perspectives, develop new and necessary skills, and challenge their assumptions. Benefits reach well beyond the classroom: Students gain the confidence, knowledge, and insight to excel in their chosen careers, as well as have a positive impact on others.

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