What Is General Education (Gen Ed)?

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  • General education requirements make up around half the credits needed for a bachelor's.
  • College students usually spend their first two years taking mainly gen ed classes.
  • Intro courses to an array of core subjects build broad skills with real-world application.

Before colleges and universities offered majors and minors, all students took the same courses — a type of curriculum called a "liberal education." Today, all undergraduates must spend time studying literature, history, philosophy, and other liberal arts subjects through general education requirements.

At many universities, gen ed classes take up most of an undergraduate's first two years. These include basic liberal arts courses, such as English and history, as well as science and math. An intro to English composition is more or less guaranteed, but which classes are considered essential continues to change and ultimately depends on the institution.

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In recent years, more colleges have begun to require general health and P.E. courses, as well as diversity and inclusion subjects. Every university crafts its own gen ed requirements, and within a university, specific schools may interpret those requirements differently.

College's core liberal arts curriculum sets it apart from professional and vocational training. While a student's major may be printed on their diploma, the class time spent on earning their degree has often been divided among a variety of fields. Rather than specialized knowledge, bachelor's degrees signify mostly broad knowledge.

How to Choose Gen Ed Classes

Since the point of gen ed is to broaden college students' perspectives, students normally can't take classes within their major to fulfill general education requirements.

Two years of college dominated by gen ed may feel frustrating for those who want to dive into their chosen fields straight away, but students often have more choice over what they learn outside their majors.

Most colleges allow students to choose from long lists of courses for each general education requirement. Options typically include 101 courses and upper-level classes open to both undergraduates and graduate students.

Common General Education Courses

  • English Composition
  • Foreign Language
  • Natural Sciences
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Mathematics
  • Social Sciences
  • First-Year Orientation
  • Diversity and Inclusion

That said, the many general education courses to choose from can hinder students' progress through college. Taking advanced gen ed classes that negatively impact a student's grades is undesirable, but so is chasing easy A's.

To offset the time burden of gen ed requirements, many students — sometimes on the advice of their academic advisors — opt for the easiest gen ed options. A better tactic, though, would be to treat general education requirements the same way students treat minors: as opportunities to explore other interests, whether they counterbalance or complement a student's main course of study.

For example, a computer science student might supplement their understanding of human-computer interaction by taking psychology and sociology gen ed classes. Or, they might prefer to take a break from screen time with a more hands-on course like forestry.

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Transferring Credits From Gen Ed Classes

It's generally quite easy to transfer general education credits you earn at one college to another since these classes teach the same fundamental concepts regardless of the institution.

For example, many students enroll at a local community college for a couple of years so they can get general education requirements out of the way at a much lower price before eventually transferring to a four-year university.

Be sure to consult your academic advisor to ensure your gen ed credits will transfer.

The Case for Gen Ed

Most college students select a major by the end of their sophomore year. Gen ed lays the framework for those upper-level major courses and for students' future careers.

A broad, college-level encounter with math, science, communication, writing, and other key disciplines develops critical soft skills, such as analysis and creative problem-solving. It's these types of skills that employers want to see the most in college grads.

The gen ed framework itself varies and has changed substantially over time. What colleges consider fundamental speaks to the culture of specific colleges, and of higher education as a whole.

Frequently Asked Questions About General Education

How many gen ed classes do you need to take?

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While the number of gen ed classes you're required to take varies depending on the school, most colleges require undergraduates to take at least 40 credits of gen ed.

Which general education courses should you take?

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Some gen ed classes are required for all undergraduates, but other gen ed subjects may present you with a list of classes from which to choose. Ultimately, it's best to pick gen ed classes that interest you and/or that complement your major or minor.

What happens if you fail a gen ed class?

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Failing a gen ed class means you will most likely have to retake that class at a later date or take (and pass) another course in that same gen ed subject category.

By when do you need to complete your general education requirements?

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Typically, students simply need to complete all gen ed requirements by the end of their degree program. That said, some colleges may require you to fulfill certain gen ed requirements by the end of your first or second year.

Can you earn gen ed credits in high school?

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Passing AP exams and IB exams in high school could allow you to fulfill certain general education requirements at your chosen college, helping you enter college with credits already under your belt. Note that college policies vary in terms of what AP/IB scores you must get to earn college credit.

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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