For Immediate Release

David Tritelli
Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs
202-888-0811 (office)

New Survey Finds Colleges Moving Away From Pure "Cafeteria-Style" General Education Requirements, with only 15 Percent Now Using Distribution Requirements Alone

Two-thirds of Colleges Are Incorporating More Engaged and Integrative Learning Practices Into General Education Programs

May 15, 2009

Washington, DC—The Association of American Colleges and Universities released findings today from a survey of its members revealing trends in undergraduate general education and the use of engaged and integrative curricular practices.  The survey of chief academic officers at 433 colleges and universities of all sorts (public and private, two-year and four-year, large and small) suggests that many colleges and universities are reforming their general education programs and developing new curricular approaches and ways to assess key learning outcomes.  As institutions review their general education programs, many are choosing to incorporate more engaged and integrative curricular practices. 

Only 15 percent of colleges and universities are now using a cafeteria-style general education program alone.  More than two-thirds of colleges and universities use a model that combines course choice with other integrative features like learning communities or thematic required courses. 

For example:

41 percent of institutions report incorporating common intellectual experiences;

36 percent use thematic required courses;

33 percent now have upper-level general education requirements; and

24 percent use learning communities in which a group of students take the same set of courses linked to a common theme.

“One hundred years ago, Harvard introduced the concepts of ‘distribution’ and ‘concentration’ to organize the undergraduate curriculum,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “In 2009, this new study shows clearly that a decisive majority of colleges and universities see this model as inadequate for today’s students and today’s world. Most campuses still use the concept of ‘breadth’—requiring students to take courses in different fields to guide them beyond their comfort zones. But only a tiny fraction of institutions now rely on this model alone to ensure that students get the outcomes they need from a college education. Many colleges are now emphasizing interdisciplinary global studies, learning communities or topically linked courses taken together by a small cohort of students, thematic courses on big questions like sustainability or the global AIDS pandemic, and advanced-level integrative requirements. These new practices prepare students for a far more complex world and far more competitive global economy.”

Many institutions surveyed are placing more emphasis on practices that educational research has shown are particularly effective.  Seventy-eight percent are placing more emphasis on undergraduate research; 73 percent are placing more emphasis on first-year experiences; and 52 percent report placing more emphasis on learning communities.

“We’ve known for many years that common intellectual experiences such as students taking the same courses together as part of a core curriculum or a well-designed learning community can have a profound effect on a host of important learning outcomes,” said George D. Kuh, chancellor’s professor of higher education at Indiana University and founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. “It is most encouraging that many colleges are now incorporating some of these engaging, integrative practices in their general education programs.”

Assessing General Education Outcomes

Almost all of the institutions surveyed (89 percent) are in some stage of either assessing or modifying their general education program.  Assessment of cumulative learning outcomes in general education is, in fact, now becoming the norm.  Fifty-two percent of institutions are currently assessing cumulative learning outcomes in general education beyond the level of individual course grades, with another 42 percent reporting that they are planning for assessment of cumulative general education learning outcomes.

Assessments of cumulative learning in general education vary widely, with 40 percent using rubrics applied to examples of student work, 37 percent assessing culminating or capstone projects, 26 percent using national tests of general skills, and another 23 percent using locally developed examinations.

Few institutions are using standardized national tests of general knowledge, such as science or the humanities, however.  Only sixteen percent of those surveyed report using such tests.

Experiential or Real-World Application

While many of the trends documented in this survey suggest that campuses are moving in the direction recommended by educational research, there are still areas where colleges could do much more to ensure that students have the skills and knowledge they need, particularly for success in a volatile global economy.  For example, while earlier AAC&U surveys of employers indicate that they want colleges to place more emphasis on learning in real-world settings, only 36 percent of academic administrators currently give their own general education programs a high rating (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale) for including experiential learning opportunities. 

A slight majority of those surveyed do indicate having some “experiential” goals for all students, however.  About 53 percent, for instance, include “civic engagement” as one of a list of stated learning goals for all students.  About half of the responding institutions also include either “research skills” or “application of learning” as common goals for all students.

Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed also indicate that they are placing more emphasis on incorporating service learning into courses either in general education or elsewhere in the curriculum.  Nearly two-thirds are placing more emphasis on providing students with internship opportunities.  Only forty-seven percent are placing more emphasis on practicums and supervised fieldwork.

“For over a century, the American approach to liberal education has placed strong emphasis on general education to provide college graduates with both intellectual breadth and the capacity to synthesize knowledge,” said Stanley Katz, professor of public and international relations at Princeton University. “But over time, general education has become a hodge-podge on many campuses. The focus on cumulative learning outcomes currently sweeping across higher education has also brought a renewed commitment to general education and to the role it plays in ensuring that students are liberally educated rather than narrowly trained. What this study shows is that campus faculty and leaders now want general education to help students both integrate and apply their cross-disciplinary learning to the world’s significant questions, both contemporary and enduring. This movement should challenge both the disciplines and professional fields to broaden their own approaches to student learning as well.”

For a full report on the findings of this survey, click here (pdf).

For findings from employer surveys, see

A previous report on findings from this current survey on trends in learning outcomes and assessment was released in April 2009.  For findings from that report, see:

The survey was conducted online From November 19, 2008, to February 16, 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research. Completed surveys were received from 433 chief academic officers or designated representatives at AAC&U member institutions. The margin of error is ±4.7 percentage points for the entire sample, and it is larger for subgroups. The total population for the survey included 906 AAC&U member institutions that were invited to complete the survey, and thus the response rate for the survey is 48 percent.