As the advisement and registration period for Fall 2019 courses begins, students are scrambling to find the general education courses best suited for their schedules. Advertised as a linchpin of USC’s undergraduate academic experience, the GE system imposes the same core requirements on all students, regardless of major. The most recent expansion of the University’s GE curriculum occurred in 2015, under former president C. L. Max Nikias’ leadership, and the current system is still dominated by efforts to meet requirements laid out in Nikias’ four-year-old vision.
But USC’s model needs further structural changes to provide students a holistic education while still allowing them to focus on their chosen fields. The purpose of general education is to allow students to have a broad, holistic look into other areas of academia. But students often find they are relearning material they had already covered in their high schools or are taking classes that are much more highly specialized than their past learning can provide context for.
Since the 2015 changes, undergraduate students are required to take 10 GE courses across eight categories — some students can fulfill the requirements with fewer courses by choosing classes that serve multiple categories or if they have Advanced Placement credit. USC requires a minimum of 128 baccalaureate units at the undergraduate level to graduate, and these GE courses comprise only a small proportion of students’ undergraduate course load.
One of the faults of the GE system is that the credits accepted to waive courses does not accurately reflect what the student’s experience or aptitude in certain categories are. USC’s GE exemptions are very limited, compared to that of other elite universities. Georgetown University, which tied with USC in the 2018 U.S. News and World Report national university rankings, allows students to test out of all but one of its GE requirement categories through its broad acceptance of AP and International Baccalaureate credit. USC, on the other hand, only offers exemption from a maximum of five GE requirements through AP or IB credit. Only one of the 10 requirements — GE F: Quantitative Reasoning — can be fulfilled through an aptitude test.
Even achieving this modest number of exemptions is difficult for students due to the University’s puzzling selection process for which exams it accepts for GE credit. For example, AP Art History is the only AP exam that exempts students from the GE A: Arts category requirement; this automatically disadvantages students entering USC from the overwhelming majority of public high schools that do not offer the relatively niche AP Art History class. Meanwhile, students who scored a 4 or 5 on the much more widely administered AP English Literature and Composition, AP English Language and Composition or AP Computer Science exams are not eligible for any exemptions.
An adverse consequence of the GE system’s onerous requirements and limited opportunities for exemption is that, with so many students all required to take so many courses, courses have proliferated and become less general in subject matter.
The massive student demand for GE credit has resulted in the addition of courses that cover specialized issues and sub-fields rather than broad topics. For example, this semester, students can fulfill their life science requirement by taking introductory courses such as “Evolution,” “General Biology for the Environment and Life” and “The Nature of Human Health and Disease,” as well as courses centered around niche subject matter like “Science of Sport,” “The Biology of Food,” and “Drugs, Behavior and Society.” These latter courses are too specialized to provide students with a broad, widely applicable understanding of a discipline. But students also lose out on the benefits of a specialized curriculum due to their lack of prior knowledge about the subject, thereby defeating the purpose of the interdisciplinary foundation that the GE system hopes to instill in undergraduates.
General education courses are necessary for students to explore their academic options and obtain a comprehensive, holistic education. But the GE system is in dire need of major structural changes.