by Chris Mayer

Undergraduate curricular change at colleges and universities is undertaken for many reasons. At some institutions, the curriculum has been in place for many years, even decades, and it is time for a change. Demographic pressures and concerns about the value of degrees are also motivations for curricular change as some colleges and universities, especially liberal arts colleges, seek a stronger connection between the college experience and employment opportunities for students after graduation. 

Institutions also seek to create a distinctive curriculum that demonstrates the institution’s uniqueness, which is important for attracting and retaining students in today’s competitive environment for prospective students. One tension that often occurs during curricular change efforts is the perceived conflict between liberal arts and professional education — or, viewed another way, between a traditional college curriculum and what is thought of as preparation for work. 

Many curricular change efforts are able to address this tension because it turns out that liberal arts can, with some intentionality, prepare students for the workforce. Reports like this one from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and books like Scott Hartley’s The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World and George Anders’ You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, demonstrate the value of the liberal arts for employment. 

The following examples from several campuses around the country demonstrate the possibility of navigating this tension, and reflect some of the trends occurring in higher education curricular change. 

The University of Virginia 

The University of Virginia recently completed a significant revision of its curriculum that sought to make it more “innovative, comprehensive and interdisciplinary.” The New College Curriculum has three components: Engagements, Literacies, and Disciplines. 

  • Engagements provide first-year students the opportunity to explore big questions in the areas of Aesthetics, Empiricism, Difference, and Ethics. 
  • Literacies provides coursework in communication (oral, written, and digital); world languages; and quantification, computation, and data analysis. 
  • Disciplines allows students to learn, through the study of seven disciplines, how faculty engage in disciplinary thinking. 

This curriculum balances traditional curricular approaches by exploring big questions and disciplines, while also providing students with opportunities to develop the skills employers need, through the Literacies and the Engagements. These provide students opportunities to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty, and apply what they learn to problems they may encounter outside of the classroom. 

Sweet Briar College 

Sweet Briar College moved away from a general education approach that allowed students to select from a menu of courses to a ten-course core curriculum, named the Leadership Core because of its focus on women’s leadership, that requires all students to take the same courses. The core curriculum provides students opportunities to “ask challenging questions about the nature of leadership,” and harness their “natural leadership abilities.” 

The ten courses, while grounded in the liberal arts, also focus on significant issues in the world and skills needed after graduation, through courses such as Sustainable Systems, which focuses on “the interconnectedness of different systems,” and Decisions in a Data-Driven World, which prepares students to “understand and present arguments supported by quantitative evidence.” 

Student writing

The Leadership Core is designed to prepare students for life after graduation, while recognizing that “Effective leaders benefit from the foundation of a liberal arts education.” The Leadership Core is also connected to the Sweet Briar College Mission, which seeks to prepare graduates to “be productive, responsible members of a world community” who “lead with integrity.” 

Along with these curricular changes, Sweet Briar College also changed its academic calendar, moving to two 12-week semesters and two 3-week semesters, to allow for shorter courses that provide opportunities for experiential learning. The new curriculum and calendar are intended to create a distinctive curriculum, along with a calendar to support it, that helps students to develop into leaders and consequential citizens who make a positive impact in the world. 

Hampshire College

Hampshire College faced financial challenges early in 2019 that forced it to seek a merger with another institution or possibly close. Ultimately, Hampshire did not to pursue a merger, deciding instead transform its curriculum. 

The curricular change effort was guided by three themes: urgent, unbounded, and entrepreneurial

  • Urgent: Hampshire College is organizing its learning experience around critical questions rather than disciplines. 
  • Unbounded: The college is removing departments and eliminating majors.
  • Entrepreneurial: Helping students identify challenges and develop solutions that address those challenges. 

What this means is that students will be able to propose big questions and work with faculty and staff to design their own academic program focused on those questions. Cathy Davidson, Founding Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University To Prepare Students for a World in Flux, writes that, “Hampshire College has done what everyone says cannot be done: it has taken seriously the challenges students face today and remade itself to prepare students to face those challenges.” 

Hampshire College’s effort represents an approach to personalize education for students in a way that allows them to pursue their passions, while at the same time preparing them to employ their education to address big questions once they graduate. 

Hiram College and Nebraska Wesleyan University

Another approach to curricular change is to strengthen connections between courses so that the curriculum is integrated. A central component of Hiram College’s curriculum is its Coherent Core, which organizes courses by urgent challenges and opportunities so that students explore them from different perspectives. Examples include: 

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Global warming
  • The 21st century market economy
  • Food, water, and healthcare

A benefit of the Coherent Core is described in this way: “It is a cluster of courses that prepares you to think about and do something about real-life issues.” 

Another institution that focuses on integrating its curriculum is Nebraska Wesleyan University, which has an Integrative Core that includes threads that intentionally connect multiple courses using topics like science and religion, or power. It defines and explains the value of threads as “series of interconnected courses weaving through different academic disciplines. By exploring an issue from multiple perspectives, you’ll see the overlaps that others miss.” 

Because problems do not have disciplinary boundaries, curricula like the Coherent Core and the Integrative Core are intended to prepare students to employ their entire education (rather than a single discipline) when engaging challenges and opportunities while in college and after graduation.

The examples above reflect efforts to more demonstrably align the undergraduate curriculum with employment needs after graduation, while preserving the traditional foundations of liberal arts. They recognize the need to be more intentional about attainment of the curriculum’s goals and the linkage of those goals to students’ work and life after graduation.

About the author

Chris Mayer

Chris Mayer is Associate Dean for Strategy and Initiatives and an Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He teaches courses in the areas of moral philosophy, the ethics of war, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, and his research focuses on ethical theory, the ethics of war, and higher education. He serves as an evaluator and workshop leader for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and was a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College from 2011-2018. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and a B.S from the United States Military Academy.

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