General education requirements make up half of a bachelor's degree at most colleges. These courses build soft skills that hold real-world value for jobs.

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What Is General Education (Gen Ed)?


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

Before colleges offered majors and minors, all students took the same courses. Back then, this type of curriculum was known as a "liberal education." Today, literature, history, philosophy, and other liberal arts subjects are still taught to all college students through general education requirements.

Gen ed classes take up most of an undergraduate's first two years.

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 what classes are considered essential continues to change — and varies depending on the institution.

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.

EXAMPLE GEN ED SUBJECT REQUIREMENTS

  • English Composition
  • Foreign Language
  • Natural Sciences
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Quantitative Reasoning / Mathematics
  • Society and Culture / Social Sciences
  • First-Year Orientation
  • Diversity and Inclusion

How to Choose Gen Ed Classes

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

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

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.

“[I]n the 1960s, students were required to take one comprehensive course in the humanities; students today choose from among 60 or more courses to meet the humanities requirement.”

However, the many general education courses to choose from can hinder students' progress through college. Taking advanced gen ed courses 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 at the advice of their counselors — opt for the easiest gen ed options. A better tactic, though, would be to treat gen ed requirements the same way that 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 courses. Or, they might prefer to take a break from screen time with a more hands-on course like forestry.

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 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.