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Most college degree programs typically have certain general course requirements. These courses may include life and physical sciences, history, humanities, math and English, and foreign language. Known as general education or core requirements, these courses can take two to three years to complete.
Can I take general education courses online?
If you're working full time and/or have a family, this might discourage you from getting your degree — but don't let it. Online general education courses make it possible to take these courses without having to attend college.
Because of the flexibility associated with online programs, taking your general education courses online can help you finish them at your own pace, in the convenience of your own home, allowing you to balance work, life and family commitments.
What are general education courses?
The curriculum for undergraduate programs is typically divided into two parts:
- General education courses
- The major field of study
General education courses can be further divided into two components:
- Core classes, which are mandatory for all undergraduate students. The core curriculum is usually designed to ensure students receive a basic education in foundational topics like math and English.
- Electives from a specified list that usually includes an assortment of subjects like art appreciation, science and social sciences. The number of electives you need to choose can depend on your degree program.
If you haven’t decided on a major, you may want to look at choosing general education courses that allow you to explore these subjects. For example, you may be interested in psychology as well as English literature. General education courses on those topics may help you decide if you want to major in English or psychology.
If you have decided on your major, you may want to choose electives that complement your major or might enhance your employability in the career you wish to pursue. For example, if you are studying engineering and want to work in academia, a technical writing course may be a good fit. Learning a foreign language may complement a travel and tourism degree.
What is the purpose of general education courses?
General education courses are designed to provide a broad interdisciplinary education that can help students develop life skills, improve employability and become an informed citizen. In the words of Harvard philosophy professor Sean Kelly, general education courses can help students be "prepared to enter the broader world and to aspire to live a good life in it."
Apart from giving students a well-rounded education, general education courses can provide students with skills employers want. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 82 percent of employers looked for candidates with problem-solving skills — something that can be learned through general education courses. And these courses can also help you develop other skills employers usually desire, such as communication and interpersonal skills along with analytical, creative, and technical abilities.
Another benefit: You may discover new interests through your online general education courses.
What factors should I consider when choosing general education courses?
Whether or not you’ve decided on a degree program, here are a few factors that are important to consider:
If you intend to transfer or apply your credits toward a formal degree program, it’s important that you take your online general education courses from an accredited school. You may find that some state universities actually have cooperative programs with community colleges making it easier to transfer credits earned. While credits for general education core courses that meet certain criteria are generally transferable, schools may not accept elective credits toward a specific degree program. Be sure to explore their transferability before you enroll.
Online course format
Many general education courses offered online are asynchronous, which means you can access the course material at any time that is convenient to you. Synchronous classes require you to be available at a certain time online to participate in a live class. Blended or hybrid programs require you to attend some classes in-person and others online. Look for a format that works best with your schedule.
Selecting a lighter elective can add a little fun to your college experience and alleviate some of the stress of a busy semester. It may also be a somewhat easier to earn a good grade in the class – something that could boost your GPA. However, be aware that not all schools accept transfer credits for all types of courses, so choose wisely.
How many general education courses do I need to take?
The number of general education courses required can vary depending on your college or university and degree. However, you can expect them to cover a third or even half of the credits (typically between 42-60 semester-based college credits of the total 130 – 180 credits) required for your undergraduate degree.
For example, a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree may require more liberal arts and humanities electives compared to a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree, which may require fewer electives and a concentration or specialization instead of general electives. Some highly technical degrees may require fewer general education courses.
Non-credit general education courses
If you want to learn new skills or pursue an interest that falls out of the scope of your degree program and electives offered, you might consider taking non-credit courses online for your personal development – something that could culminate in a certificate of completion. It is important to remember, however, that non-credit courses do not count toward your degree requirements and are not eligible for federal financial aid.
When do I need to complete my general education courses?
Typically, colleges allow students to complete their general education course requirements any time throughout the degree program. To make it easier for students, some colleges offer them online with multiple starting dates throughout the year. For example, Penn State University offers online general education courses at a discount during the summer sessions to help students stay on track for their degree requirements.
Students can complete these courses online before they enroll in a degree program or after they finish their specific major requirements. Some states like Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma have concurrent enrollment schemes that allow you to earn college credits for your general education courses while still finishing high school.
General Education Course Topics
The university or degree program usually has a set of goals or learning outcomes they expect their students to achieve through taking general education classes. Broadly, most universities expect their students to cultivate the following basic skills through general education:
- Analytical reading and elucidative writing: Students learn to read and understand complex subjects and describe them
- Critical thinking: Students learn to understand the nuances of reasoning and distinguish logical reasoning from defective
- Mathematics: Students understand mathematical ideas and quantifiable reasoning
- Oral communication: Students can verbally communicate their ideas and thoughts clearly
Typical subject areas and courses are:
Many degree programs require up to six credits in English. Courses is this broad area may help you develop your presentation skills, be able to clearly convey your ideas and defend them, and be able to plan, outline, write and edit your work. Some potential classes are:
- Contemporary literature
- Poetry appreciation
- Academic or technical writing
- College composition
General education math requirements can vary depending on your major. Math courses may help you interpret statistical data and graphs and use the information from them in your work. You can also gain an understanding of the mathematical process and prove simple results using them. Some examples of math courses are:
- College algebra
- Principles of mathematics
General electives in science can give you an understanding of how the materials in the world around you interact and they can even help you in your daily life. A basic understanding of biology, for example, may help you explain your symptoms to a doctor clearly. Some courses you might take are:
- Principles of scientific thought
- Earth science
Social sciences can help you gain an insight into human relationships and help you apply your learnings in your daily interactions with other people. You may also learn how social interactions have changed over time and their diversity in different cultures. Courses may cover:
- Political science
Arts and Humanities
General education classes in this subject area are designed to help students appreciate human history and knowledge as well as how ideas are expressed through art, literature, music and philosophy. You may find courses such as:
- Modern film
- Introduction to music
- Fine art appreciation
Apart from these main categories, you may also find general education courses online in covering topics like theology, personal wellness, foreign languages, gender studies and technology.