Every student needs a basic foundation in math, science, English, and humanities to complete their degree program. Unfortunately, this requirement can be a challenge for both small and highly specialized colleges that lack the resources or expertise to create and staff online options for these general education courses.
Last week was the annual TRACS conference. The small Christian schools that earn TRACS accreditation are preparing students for a religious-focused career and they understand that challenge. As part of the conference, our Executive Director, Dr. Rob Reynolds, presented ways to make general education a key part of a college’s curriculum and not just a box to be checked.
The Challenge of General Education for Niche Institutions
Unlike many traditional four-year colleges and universities, most students attend highly specialized institutions with a specific goal in mind. For TRACS schools, that often includes ministry and theological study.
While it’s important to have a strong foundation in math, writing, and humanities no matter what the area of study, there isn’t typically a large overlap between typical general education courses such as College Algebra and the major-specific courses for the degree program. This causes four major challenges for niche institutions.
When most of your instructors have PhDs in Theology or Masters of Divinity, it can be hard to find someone who can teach Biology. And with small classes, it might not make sense to offer that course every semester, making staffing even more difficult.
Many of the schools we talked with at TRACS had fewer than 500 students spread across undergraduate and graduate programs. It’s not cost-effective to offer each general education course each semester, especially if only five or six students enroll. So how do you help students stay on track with their degree program if they miss a required course?
Staffing and small class sizes compound into a major cost hurdle. Schools need to dedicate most of their resources to the upper-level courses that align with their mission. Adjuncts can help, but they also require management.
Many small and highly specialized institutions equate the course with the instructor. Staffing availability and turnover issues for general education courses, however, create a lack of consistency and sustainability in the quality of the courses.
Making General Education Work For A Highly Specialized Institution
The great thing about working with small, hyper-focused schools is that they have a strong mission and direction. They know the students they serve and the effect they want their students to have on the world.
To make general education work, these schools must set their priorities based on their mission and the goals of their students. Focus on only the courses that are essential to the goals of their students. For those courses students need, keep things simple by implementing templates, standards, and integrations.
Create Easy-to-Follow Curriculum Templates
A best practice for ensuring consistent quality and addressing accreditation requirements is to create a common framework that can be applied to all general education courses. This framework should include a common course template that addresses the expected structure for the course, the key concepts and topics to be covered, the learning outcomes for the course, and the number and types of required assessments/assignments that are considered suitable for measuring course learning outcomes.
Establish Standardized Performance Expectations
While Language & Composition might not be as demanding as an Ethics in Counseling course, it’s important to make sure students progress through the material. Create rubrics that tie to mission-driven learning outcomes and create standardized reporting to make it easy to see how students are doing.
Build Technology Integrations
LMSs and SISs streamline a lot of processes. Schools can take advantage of integrations with curriculum providers and communication tools to make managing the courses simple. Many providers can set up single sign-on integrations so students only have to go to one place to access all their course information.
Focus On Skills Alignment
Identify the skills and competencies students should have when they progress into the degree-specific courses, as well as what they should be able to do in their careers. Make sure those skills are incorporated into the rubrics and learning objectives for each course.
Providing Options For General Education
Many of the administrators we talked with at the TRACS conference felt like they didn’t have the options they needed. It was a scheduling nightmare to make sure students had the courses to progress in their degree path without wasting resources. With TEL’s qualified instructors, flexible scheduling, and no minimum enrollments, several schools finally felt like they had a solution to their general education challenge.