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The Anatomy of a College Curriculum

Anatomy of a College Curriculum: Free Electives

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In this blog series we have already examined both the Core Curriculum and Major requirements a student must complete in order to graduate. This time, we will look at “Free Electives,” which are the number of remaining credit hours required for a degree (degree = 120 credit hours) that have not been used up in satisfying Core and Major requirements.

Generally speaking, the more Free Elective credit hours available, the better. They are like currency that can be spent on achieving a “Minor,” or focused area of study in an area different from the student’s Major. A Minor typically requires 15-21 credit hours. They may also be used to help a student earn a second or “ Double Major,” or Certificate. Finally, Free Electives can be spent on individual courses that the student chooses to take for fun, interest, or professional development purposes.

Students can maximize their number of Free Electives by selecting Core courses that simultaneously satisfy Major requirements (e.g. a Major course in Economics may also satisfy a Core Social Science requirement, etc.). A student’s advisor can help them maximize these “Double Dip” opportunities as well as plan for how to calculate and spend their remaining Elective credit hours.

Some Majors require only 36-48 credit hours leaving plenty of room for Free Electives while others require 50-75 leaving little room. The student’s goal beyond their Core and Major requirements is to “spend” their Electives to their greatest advantage. Some may wish to add a credential or explore an interesting new area of study by adding a Minor or Certificate. Others may pick and choose individual courses for any of a variety of reasons. Since students cannot control their Core or Major requirements (except for maximizing “Double Dip” opportunities), we recommend that they be more planful and strategic in the use of their precious Free Electives.

Over the next few weeks I will offer a few more blog entries related to student success and then we will hike into our annual “Haunted Colleges in Ohio” series. These are my most popular entries – go figure. This year I have some great tales of fright from Ohio’s colleges to offer, so prepare to strap in for the ride.

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 www.collegeboundadvantage.com .

Anatomy of a College Curriculum: The Major

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In our last blog, we looked at how a college curriculum is organized and then looked more closely at the Core Curriculum (General Education) Requirements. In this discussion, we will look more closely at the Major.

In addition to completing a college’s Core Curriculum, college students select a “Major” area of study. Major requirements may vary significantly from Major area to Major area, or between colleges in the same Major area. For example, an Accounting Major will typically be much more extensive (require more credit hours) than a History Major. So, it would be much easier for a History major to add a Minor or Double Major as compared to an Accounting major. Additionally, the requirements for a History or Accounting major may differ markedly between colleges. The tradeoff – the more significant the Major requirements, the fewer electives are available for students to Double Major or select a Minor.

As a general rule of thumb, Professional Majors such as Business, Nursing, or Engineering tend to require more credit hours than those in other disciplines. The reason for this is that Professional Majors are often informed by specialty accreditor requirements, state licensure requirements, or other professional standards that extend required coursework. Students majoring in Art-related disciplines (e.g. Music, Dance, Illustration, Graphic Design, etc.) should carefully explore Major credit hours as these may vary greatly between colleges even given identical Majors.

The Major curriculum is typically composed of (1) Major courses (courses IN the Major area of study); Correlatives (courses outside the Major area of study, but required by the Major), and; (3) Major “Pick From” lists of courses from which students may choose a prescribed number of courses. These courses may be in the Major area of study or outside it and typically allow students to specialize a bit.

So, for example, a student majoring in Accounting would be required to complete a set of Major Accounting courses such as Financial Accounting, Managerial Accounting, Personal Taxation, Auditing, and others. Additionally they might be required to take Correlatives (additional courses outside of Accounting) such as a course in Management, Statistics, Finance, Marketing, Human Resources, or others. Finally, they may be required to select a small number of elective courses from a longer list. These options allow students to tailor their Accounting Major to respond to more specific career objectives. Options might include Entrepreneurial Accounting, Introduction to QuickBooks, Non-Profit Accounting, etc.

Each Major is structured differently and differences exist in the same Major at different colleges as well. This is one reason why, at CBA, we recommend that students and their families meet with a faculty member in each Major they are considering at each college they are considering. In that meeting, the student can ask the faculty member to explain the organization of the Major courses. It sounds technical, but once you hear a faculty member explain their Major course sequence at three different colleges, it will become more clear which college has a thoughtfully designed Major with many options and those that are more rigid and/or guided by tradition.

Next time, we will look at Free Electives and how a student can use these to his or her advantage.

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 www.collegeboundadvantage.com .

Anatomy of a College Curriculum: The Core Curriculum

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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 www.collegeboundadvantage.com .

 

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