Thursday, January 25, 2018

Can we still afford the curriculum of general university requirements?

I think if I were in my 20s today, I wouldn't go to college. My confidence in the marketability of my skills isn't that high so I wouldn't want to incur a huge debt. Some other people have a clearer vision toward a lucrative career, but without that, the debt may not be worth it.

Back when I did go to college, the costs were much lower. My parents were able to pay my way so I graduated with no debt. They were only slightly upper middle class. If I couldn't have my way paid today, I doubt I would go. Instead I would live my life, kind of like I am living it now, looking for quality of life things that are low cost. I'd be spending some time at the university anyway, attending free discussions. Also I would be taking advantage of educational things in the community and on the net. Listening to a lot of NPR podcasts as I do now.

My mom was a strong believer that college should be about more than just preparing for a job. It's the virtue of being an informed citizen. She believed in the balance of humanities and sciences. Her own major was physical education, but she never used it vocationally. She did lots of volunteer work and was married to my dad who was a science professor at WSU in Pullman. I feel fortunate to have been brought up in that family; a situation made possible by affordable education.

While I was going to college, I did have my own struggle with humanities requirements. I was never much of a reader. I'm definitely not a speed reader. Some of the general education requirements seemed irrelevant to me back then. Kind of distant and theoretical. I had my own humanities issues dealing with campus life, coming out as a gay person and so forth. My own life situations spoke so loud to me that I had trouble putting my life experiences aside enough to concentrate on the classics. I knew that there are insights one could get from that study, but it was hard for me to make that connection.

Fortunately, when I got to college here at WWU in Bellingham, they had just done a major revamp of their general university requirements; the GURs. They were starting to put aside a fairly rigid GUR curriculum and were adopting more of a smorgasbord system with a lot of choices to fill each GUR category. They offered choices in several categories of sciences, humanities, and ethnic studies. Ethnic studies was a new addition, I think. The definition of a well rounded education keeps evolving. We had a certain number of classes required from each category. Lots of choices. I tried to avoid classes that had a heavy reading load. The system worked pretty well and I made it through. That was back in the mid 1970s.

Back then, WWU was facing a very different situation than it is today. When I entered college, the student enrollment was going down. Imagine that today as these days they turn away students and face enrollment ceilings. Part of the reason for the shortage of students was their rigid system of humanities requirements which is a big reason why they were adopting the more open "choice" system. Demographics effected enrollment also as the Vietnam war was winding down and the push of people going to college for draft deferment was basically over. They had more faculty than the enrollment could justify so they were under some pressure, from the state, to boost enrollment and also lay off faculty and staff. They had a program called RIF meaning "reduction in force." People nicknamed that "ripoff in force." Eventually, as I got toward graduation, enrollment was going up again and the situation was stabilizing.

There's been lots of history since then, but I thought I would share my own college experience. I think I did get a good education with a variety of topics. A broad based education, but also a lot of choice within the parameters as I tried to take classes that interested me. I was glad to be able to take lots of electives. Took me 5 years to get a 4 year degree. I was able to go "the scenic route" so to speak.

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