The goal of changes in the core curriculum at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville is to ease the transition for students transferring from the state’s two-year colleges and raise the number of college graduates.
But some faculty members fear that reducing required general education credits will challenge the university’s ability to produce graduates with well rounded educations.
The Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences plans to reduce its core curriculum from the current 66 hours to the state’s minimum 35-hour general education requirement as the university complies with a state law that forbids the school from requiring additional freshman- and sophomore-level general education credits from students transferring in from nearby two-year colleges.
Core curriculum is a set of general education courses that all students within a given college must take, regardless of their majors, to complete their degrees.
“There have been some faculty that think that the law was dumbing down the core curriculum. It really was not,” Chancellor G. David Gearhart said. “We have ways of including courses that we think are important in certain majors.” Act 182 of 2009 amended Arkansas Code 6-61 to require four-year schools to admit associate’s degree graduates from two-year colleges within 50 miles without requiring additional lower-division general education course work, unless it is a prerequisite for degree-specific courses. The act also requires universities to create transfer guides for neighboring colleges, outlining suggested curriculum for students who plan to transition between the two institutions.
“It does make sense to have an ease of transfer,” Gearhart said. “What we’re trying to do in the state is get more students with baccalaureate degrees. Anything we can do to make it seamless and make it an easier transfer is good.” Arkansas ranks 49th out of the 50 states in adults holding bachelor’s degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fewer than 20 percent of Arkansans 25 or older have four year degrees.
Lawmakers have attempted to increase that by eliminating barriers for college transfers, creating a more stringent curriculum to prepare high school students for college, and creating a state lottery to fund Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships.
UA plans to implement a revised core in the fall of 2011 for “native students,” or those who enter the school as freshmen, Fulbright College dean William Schwab said. Students who transfer in with two-year degrees will be required to take the Arkansas Department of Higher Education’s mandated minimum core curriculums.
The college had already planned to adjust its “bloated” core before Act 182 was approved by legislators, Schwab said. The existing curriculum was adopted in 1961, and additional requirements, including science and a second year of foreign languages, were added without evaluating whether other courses should be eliminated.
A committee evaluating the curriculum planned to trim it to 45 hours. The college decided instead to adopt the state-required core curriculum.
“We had a three-year time frame,” Schwab said. “This just kind of accelerated that.” The most significant changes between the two curriculum sets are an already planned reduction of science requirements, elimination of a foreign language requirement and requiring only college algebra, which is “high school level stuff at this point,” he said.
Most departments, concerned that thinning the core curriculum is detrimental to students, made foreign language credits degree-specific requirements and made a higher-level math course a prerequisite for a required course.
Outside institutions have praised the UA’s existing core curriculum, which is relatively extensive compared with other public institutions.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni lists UA on its A List alongside seven other schools, including Baylor University, the University of Texas and the City University of New York, for its extensive general education requirements. To receive an “A” grade, universities had to require at least six of seven suggested courses: literature, foreign language, U.S. government, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science.
Schwab discounted the rating, noting the group’s Western-centric degree requirements, which discount Western civilization classes as suitable alternatives to U.S. history.
The dean met with language faculty members April 20 to reassure them that he intended to minimize the new degree requirements’ impact on their departments.
“We cannot, and don’t wish to, support a two-tiered system in which transfer students would be required to have only 35 credit hours of core courses and students who originate their college career at UA would be held to a higher standard and greater number of required core courses,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail.
The effect of adopting language as a degree-specific requirement for most majors will be essentially equal to restoring it to the core, Schwab wrote.
In a separate interview, Schwab said he’d received assurances from Provost Sharon Gaber that the number of graduate-assistant positions available within the foreign language department would remain the same as the previous year even if total course hours taught are reduced.
State Sen. Sue Madison, who voted for Act 182, said she’d heard a lot of concern from faculty members and students about the law’s implementation. Madison interprets the law differently, insisting that a clause preserving degree-specific requirements as prerequisites for graduation covers core curriculum as well.
“It never entered [legislators’] minds to dumb down the curriculum,” she said.
Schwab and Gearhart hope that reducing general curriculum requirements will allow students to more easily pursue double majors and reduce stress on the Fulbright College, which fills its classes to 97 percent capacity, well above other colleges. Under the existing core, the Fulbright College teaches 68 percent of all courses on the Fayetteville campus.
Arkansas Higher Education Director Jim Purcell said adopting former general education credits as degree specific requirements would give individual programs the flexibility to assess what their students really need to be successful in their fields.
“We’re just trying to ease the transition,” he said. “We’re in a state where we’re really trying to increase our graduates.”