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Anatomy of a College Curriculum: The Core Curriculum

By August 29, 2017September 13th, 2017The Anatomy of a College Curriculum

In most colleges, degree requirements (the course progression leading to a degree) follow a set pattern or design. In this blog series, I am going to dive into the anatomy of college curriculum and then we will look at how students can best maximize their outcomes at any college.

With only a few exceptions, Ohio’s colleges and universities have all migrated to a semester system. So, the academic year is broken into a fall semester and a spring semester, each comprising around 16-17 weeks. In a typical semester, students would take 15 credit hours (around 5 classes) with 120 credit hours required for completion of the degree. Thus a degree can be completed in approximately 4 years not including summers. Most individual courses award 3-credit hours, with some lab and other extended courses awarding 4-5 credit hours.

First, let’s look at the structural components of a college degree. They are as follows:

  1. Core Curriculum (approximately 1/3 of total credit hours)
  2. Major Courses (1/3 to 2/3 of total credit hours)
  3. Free Electives (0 to 1/3 of total credit hours)

Over the next few blog entries, we will look more closely at each structural component of a college degree. Let’s start with the Core Curriculum.

The Core Curriculum

“Core” or “General Education” Requirements comprise approximately 1/3 of a student’s total credit hours but this may vary by college. The goal of the core curriculum is to support the student’s intellectual growth as an “educated” person and citizen as well as to align the student with the core values and heritage of the specific college. Courses in the core curriculum are typically found in the Humanities, Arts, Sciences and Social Sciences – these are the fundamental disciplines, many dating back to Roman and Greek times (e.g. languages, philosophy, theology, literature, biology, etc.). Beyond content, they also focus on developing a student’s writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills.

Within each college, the Core Curriculum is a political enterprise as its content determines jobs, resource allocation, and the actualization of values within the college. For example, most Catholic colleges require two courses in Philosophy and two courses in Theology due to their unique mission as a Catholic college, whereas a public university may require no Theology and Philosophy would only be an elective among many other Humanities offerings. Few families look closely at the Core Curriculum as they consider colleges, choosing instead to focus only on major offerings. At CBA, we believe it is important to take a look at the Core as well. A large required Core Curriculum reduces free electives and may limit the size of professional degree offerings (e.g. Engineering, Business, Nursing, Social Work, Education, etc.).

The Core Curriculum is typically organized into categories. So, students may be required to take one course in the natural sciences, two courses in the humanities, one physical education course, one course in history, one course in Math, two courses in the social sciences, etc. Within each category the student may be able to choose from many options. Some of those options may be able to simultaneously satisfy a major requirement. For example, an Engineering major may be required to take Calculus in his or her first semester. This course would typically satisfy both the Core Math requirement as well as an Engineering major requirement. Students should work to maximize these “double dip” opportunities as each time they select a Core course that simultaneously satisfies a major requirement, they open up an additional Free Elective that can later be used to pick up a Minor or Certificate.

Is your head hurting yet? I think that is enough on the Core Curriculum. Next time, we will look at the courses required by the Major area of study.

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas. Check us out at .