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General Studies: Brilliant Strategy or Dumb Idea?

Roger_DooleyRoger_Dooley 6084 replies100309 postsFounder Senior Member
Last week, a new article was posted in the CC content section:

Is General Studies the Best or Worst Major You Can Pick?
http://www.collegeconfidential.com/is-general-studies-the-best-or-worst-major-you-can-pick/

Here's a short excerpt:
"The biggest pro is that it’s often considered a gateway degree that students choose their first year of college, or perhaps for their undergraduate degree, before they switch to a more focused area of study for their final years in college or in graduate school. The con is that this degree lacks specificity and focus – while the majority of degrees, such as Business or Anthropology, more clearly state the skills that students have acquired during their education."

I'm not a big fan of general studies, even for incoming first-years, as depending on the eventual major it could mean playing catchup on requirements or prerequisites. Better, in my opinion, to start down a path that seems like the best one. If it works out, great. If the student decides to change majors, he/she probably won't be worse off than with a year of GS.

At some schools, GS has a very specific meaning. At Columbia, for example, it signifies a non-traditional path.
edited May 2015
86 replies
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Replies to: General Studies: Brilliant Strategy or Dumb Idea?

  • lindyk8lindyk8 5005 replies31 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited May 2015
    I tend to agree with @fallenchemist. General studies, I would assume, would give you an overall foundation and build on communication skills, both of which, by the way, can segue nicely into law school (or even med school, if you have enough science pre-reqs). Stats show very few careers match the major. I assume, with gen. ed, you could zero in on a specialty, or add the specialty as a minor.
    edited May 2015
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  • lindyk8lindyk8 5005 replies31 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Good point @NJSue, but what if the gen ed major included 3-4 paths (student chooses one), and a capstone. UCB interdisciplinary studies includes a capstone. There's no reason that could not be put in place with gen ed. Your reasoning makes sense.
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  • NJSueNJSue 2843 replies18 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    @lindyk8, interdisciplinary majors, if carefully considered and designed, can be valuable, but I don't see them as falling under the "General Studies" umbrella. There is a strong topical focus in a good interdisciplinary major (of which there are few--these programs are the hardest to design with coherence and integrity, but if they are built well with institutional and faculty investment, they can be very good experiences). Students with strong, unique interests are often well-served by interdisciplinary majors, but apathetic and unfocused students who cannot make a decision because they have no actual intellectual interests are not well-served.
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  • lindyk8lindyk8 5005 replies31 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    You may be right, New Jersey Sue. :)
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  • fallenchemistfallenchemist 24269 replies860 postsHonorary Super Mod Inactive
    I don't agree with @NJSue. Where is it written or demonstrated that there is some inherent advantage for all students to focus on a single subject? Why can't we make room for the writers, poets, and free spirits that just want to learn about the world? Majoring in English and/or creative writing is hardly necessary to be a great writer. Why do we have to "slot" everyone this way? If their career isn't going to even involve whatever major they are forced to choose, what was the point?
    A student who cannot identify a specific area of intellectual interest after two years of college probably does not belong there in the first place.
    Why? What is the basis for this? To me that turns the idea of a liberal arts education, a true liberal arts education, on its head. Frankly I find this statement outrageous. You do realize that when people graduated from Harvard et. al. in the very early years, there were no such things as majors. They were educated in Greek, Latin, Geography, History, the sciences such as they existed at the time, etc. Is it really so wrong that a very small percentage of our students want to replicate, to the extent possible these days, this kind of education? In fact, there is a college that is dedicated to such an education, St. John's. Not the one in NYC.

    I just find such statements to be a little narrow for my taste. I would celebrate a student that was keen simply on wanting to be as broadly educated as possible about as many areas of knowledge as possible to the same degree I would celebrate a student that majored in chemistry or English or accounting.
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  • simba9simba9 3247 replies20 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    General Studies is probably no worse than a degree in History or Psychology, but unless it's very tailored, the job prospects may not be any better, either.

    As much as it might disgust some, I do think most students attend college for job training. They want a piece of paper at the end of (hopefully) four years that says they're qualified to enter the job market.
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  • HannaHanna 14866 replies42 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Both Harvard and Yale have some broadly defined majors that are considered especially rigorous. Harvard has History and Science, History and Literature (the first major introduced at Harvard), and Social Studies. All of these are honors-only and require a thesis. Yale has a major in Humanities and another in Ethics, Politics, and Economics. These are narrower than "Liberal Arts," but not by much -- especially the History and Science program. Across the board, they are seen as more demanding than the narrower fields like English and Government that they include.

    Of course, H & Y kids don't really have to worry about the perceived legitimacy of their degrees, but it's interesting that both schools have set up their broadest paths in a way that's designed to attract only the most committed students.
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  • NavalTraditionNavalTradition 1058 replies2 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Sorry if this is a dumb question, but what colleges even offer General Studies as a major?
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  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan 12668 replies29 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited May 2015
    I agree with @fallenchemist and disagree with @NJSue. The fact of the matter is that at some schools, the requirements are such that it's very hard to get multiple majors in different schools. For instance, if you want to major in both accounting and CS at UMich, well, first you have to get accepted in to Ross. Then the CS major. And good luck finishing in 4 years. And you can likely take nothing else besides major&school requirements. But you could get a BGS and take the classes that help you in both (as well as fit in side interests like anthropology and French). At UMich, BGS is/was the dumping ground that they put athletes who didn't really belong in college, but if you look through LinkedIn profiles some UMich BGS holders have also gone on to have impressive careers. Employers and grad schools do care more what you know and the classes you took than what major/degree you go.
    edited May 2015
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  • fallenchemistfallenchemist 24269 replies860 postsHonorary Super Mod Inactive
    As much as it might disgust some, I do think most students attend college for job training. They want a piece of paper at the end of (hopefully) four years that says they're qualified to enter the job market.
    Just to be clear, I am not saying that disgusts me at all, although I am a fan of all college students being introduced to various cultural and intellectual aspects outside of their majors, and to a somewhat greater extent than many schools now require. But that is a tangential discussion. I am also not saying that I think it would be wonderful if all students, most students, or even a fairly high number of students went down the GS path. In the modern world, we need accountants, architects, engineers, chemists, and so on. And it's wonderful that there are people that like these areas enough to focus on them and make a career out of it. Same for people that choose to focus on history or the infamous art history because they really want to do that, even if direct career prospects are limited.

    I am just saying there should be room for those people who want to focus solely on the intellectualism of "everything", certainly in the universities and hopefully in the job market. The job market has no obligation to employ people like that, but happily, IMO, there are in fact opportunities for such folks on a wide variety of paths. Certainly it is useful if our colleges provide advice to these people and all graduates as to how to best present their credentials to that same job market. It is not cookie cutter; different people need to present themselves differently to best highlight what they bring to the table.
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  • anhydriteanhydrite 574 replies1 postsRegistered User Member
    edited May 2015
    I agree with several here, and fallenchemist. I forget what the track was called, but at U. of Chicago, there was a very rigorous general studies curriculum, as well as others named above. Those students tended to do well if I remember correctly, as it was known for the depth and quality of its graduates. So too with the St. Johns (Annapolis / Santa Fe) colleges and their Great Books approach, and I remember several grads being sharp and well-trained. While I had my own discreet major at my large research U., I deliberately rounded out my undergrad curriculum with history, philosophy, communications, languages and linguistics, evolutionary theory, etc., even though they weren't required. I felt some students who didn't make at least an attempt for a broader perspective were missing out, but it is a personal choice.

    A general studies approach definitely represents an historical mode of education going very far back, as the American research university subsequently adopted a largely Germanic model of research-based disciplines in the later 19th century. That has thoroughly dominated the discreet disciplinary structure most research-based institutions compete with today. In terms of research excellence, it has been both exceptionally productive and isolating. Yet such a structure doesn't have to preclude general studies programs within the same institutions, and there have been more undergraduate interdisciplinary programs initiated to counterbalance isolated disciplines.

    I think LACs on the whole may be more conducive for engaging general studies programs, but larger institutions have been making efforts as well. Interdisciplinary studies has gained traction within graduate programs, as well the established comparative programs (literature, religions, etc.) Thus I do not see why broad undergraduate training, including interdisciplinary offerings, would detract from success later on. A senior thesis on a discreet topic with a faculty member can also be drawn from the broader education, which can help refine and leverage the undergrad experience for advanced work.
    edited May 2015
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  • Erin's DadErin's Dad 33012 replies3712 postsSuper Moderator Super Moderator
    The Air Force Academy has General Studies (my roommate graduated with that). Naval Academy has General Science and General Engineering.
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  • fallenchemistfallenchemist 24269 replies860 postsHonorary Super Mod Inactive
    A senior thesis on a discreet topic with a faculty member can also be drawn from the broader education, which can help refine and leverage the undergrad experience for advanced work.
    Yes, thank you so much for bringing that up, @anhydrite . I meant to as well, but in my verbosity I forgot. There is absolutely no reason to think that being a GS major and doing a capstone project/senior thesis on a more well defined topic are mutually exclusive.

    While we are on that topic, while I probably wouldn't advocate a similar master's or Ph.D. level degree, there are several subjects that can approximate such a broad based desire for intellectualism for its own sake at the graduate school level. Theology and Philosophy are the first to come to my mind, and one could maybe make an argument that History could come close, depending on the area one chose to focus on. Same for English and Literature. I recognize that these days it is hard not to specialize in narrower areas in all these subjects, but at least they might be more amenable to satisfying that kind of person that would like to spend their life exploring a greater totality. I wonder if I could make an argument for Cosmology? Hmmmm......
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  • ltfezhaltfezha 52 replies9 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    The answer is simple:

    Get 2 year degree in General Studies. If you go any further, you dun goofed.
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  • NASA2014NASA2014 2324 replies127 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    General studies are people that don't know what they want to do. It's like a undecided major basically
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  • anhydriteanhydrite 574 replies1 postsRegistered User Member
    edited May 2015
    I disagree that this choice necessarily represents an undecided or immature student, and that is not my experience at all re: more rigorous paths in general studies. It can be a "bucket" type of major for unprepared students, but in my experience, these students are more typically undeclared; or, they just declare a major for the sake of declaring, and then switch later when they have a better idea about their future.

    I would re-read some of the posts, like Hanna's, before presuming these are students who "don't know what they want to do." More often they are very motivated students who see undergrad as an opportunity to truly educate themselves deeply and broadly, and they are confident that this time spent will yield rich dividends, both for career and beyond. As I stated before, my experience is that these types of graduates tend to be quite sharp and well-prepared for a variety of careers and disciplines.

    For graduate degrees, I think this approach can be less helpful in terms of advancing successfully. What I have seen is general studies Master's for full pay at some better universities. I typically do not recommend any humanities grad program that is not near / fully funded (except of course for the traditional professions, where full pay is expected). I get the impression that sometimes, less motivated students may be induced to do this as a kind of feather in their cap, presuming they can afford to do so.

    The only time I might recommend a for-pay humanities MA would be when there is an older student already established in a different career track, who might either want to do the program for enrichment, or to see if they may want to switch careers and can afford the time and money to study humanities before committing to a discreet discipline.
    edited May 2015
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  • lindyk8lindyk8 5005 replies31 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited May 2015
    I really think the only way it can be a clear benefit, is like what I said before, a capstone project and at some point a narrower definition. The reason I say this is you need something to present to a prospective boss: General Studies, thesis (or focus): ethics and society. Otherwise the employer is not really sure what you were studying.

    I actually love the idea of a well-rounded student. Unfortunately, I do think there is the possibility of an employer reading it as unfocused and undirected unless it points somewhere. Latin used to be a sign of intellectual prowess and social status. Times change. It wouldn't get you far now.

    Berkeley has that fabulous interdisciplinary major, which really is a gen ed track, but utilizing direction and focus. Of course, Berkeley prides itself on implementing a multi-disciplinary approach. They have the Threads project to let you sample your major study in multiple disciplines.
    edited May 2015
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  • anhydriteanhydrite 574 replies1 postsRegistered User Member
    edited May 2015
    Yes, I do think unfortunately some currents employers could misread the approach. It would really depend on the student, the program, and the hiring field. To buffer that, these days it may pay to attend a more prestigious college to take a generalist approach, whether it is HYPS etc., or more of a Swarthmore / Bryn Mawr-type of LAC. I feel it can still be done successfully, but attention to the post-grad prospects would help.

    It is a shame about Latin. Though classics departments keep chugging away, in the shadows of STEM.
    edited May 2015
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