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What is General Education?

General education courses can reshape your outlook on learning, teach you soft skills and introduce you to a variety of disciplines.

A student studying for her general education classes in college.

While looking over a course list in the past, you may have wondered why certain courses are required when they’re unrelated to the direction of the degree program you were considering. These general education requirements serve an important purpose. They can reshape your outlook on learning, teach you soft skills and introduce you to a variety of disciplines.

What Are General Education Courses?

The general education curriculum focuses on the interdisciplinary lens, including courses in history, natural and social sciences, technology and humanities. Dr. Priscilla Hobbs, senior associate dean of general education and first-year experience at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), described general education as a well-rounded learning experience to help develop a well-rounded student.

Anthony Siciliano, associate vice president of general education, first-year experience, education and special programs at SNHU, said that general education credits make up “the largest allocation of credits” across undergraduate degree programs. “The general education curriculum is a standard, required part of every bachelor degree program in the country and is meant to foster greater accessibility, a clear and relevant academic pathway for students to attain their degree credential and to provide students with the necessary core skills in order to be successful in their lives and chosen career paths,” he said.

What is the Purpose of General  Education?

Here are three ways general education courses can help you grow academically and professionally.

1. Reshape Your Outlook on Learning

General education courses provide a wide breadth of learning opportunities and skills that can be applied to everyday life. Siciliano said the general education curriculum is meant to provide a foundation that promotes successful behaviors that lead to lifelong learning. “For students to be adequately prepared to do well in their chosen career, they need to have not only the rigor of an academic education but also an applied, relevant and practical curriculum that focuses on the development of these core skills,” Siciliano said.

2. Learn Soft Skills Desired by Employers

Anthony Siciliano with the text Anthony SicilianoTo impress employers and prove yourself as a member of a team, it’s important you learn interpersonal skills. These include things such as empathy, conflict resolution and being able to communicate effectively. Siciliano said the general education courses “encourage an aptitude for empathy infused with objectivity and curiosity” and “develop a strong sense of self in one’s capabilities and the ability to reflect and learn from one’s experiences”—skills employers seek in the people they hire.

“These soft skills, or core skills, are the knowledge, dispositions and abilities needed by students to be successful in their chosen professions and for becoming an immediate contributor to a rapidly changing global workforce,” Siciliano said.

Hiring employees with these attributes is essential to keep a company running smoothly. “Numerous self-help books and professional development opportunities are designed to help employees develop their soft skills,” Hobbs said. “Each day, our paths cross with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and we need to be able to manage those interactions in a positive way rather than in a way that promotes conflict,” Hobbs said.

3. Be Well-Versed in a Wide Variety of Disciplines

Dr. Priscilla Hobbs and the text Dr. Priscilla HobbsIntroducing this broad range of perspectives creates the ability to look at problems from different angles and help present possible solutions. “We may look at an issue historically, or we may put on the hat of social scientists,” Hobbs said. “Being able to see through these lenses helps us critically navigate through all the information that surrounds us at any given second. It helps us make decisions about what to filter, what we find interesting, and what we need to do about anything. Without that, the world and all the information passing through it can quickly seem overwhelming.”

Siciliano said the interdisciplinary general education courses provide students with different perspectives from which to view the world, giving them the ability to tackle a variety of real-world problems. Being able to communicate effectively with different audiences, analyze information for accuracy and display literacy in digital technology can make you an impressive candidate to potential employers or improve your chances of moving up the ladder at your present job.

What is Included in General Education?

Although specific general education requirements can differ depending on your program, you'll need to demonstrate competency in several fields of study to earn a bachelor's degree.

You'll likely be required to take general education courses in some of these areas:

  • English composition
  • History
  • Humanities and social sciences
  • Mathematics
  • Natural sciences

You might need to take multiple courses in these broader categories to fulfill your program's requirements. Certain schools also have requirements that other schools don't. For example, some schools require foreign language coursework.

What is a General Education Degree Called?

A general education degree is usually called a bachelor’s in general studies. This Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree can provide you with a strong educational background across many fields.

Siciliano said a general studies degree “provides greater flexibility to complete their degree according to their work, career and family life.” Whether you’re transferring universities or looking to earn a degree that reflects your broad range of skills, a bachelor’s in general studies can prepare you for the next step in your career.

You can often choose an area of focus within your general studies degree. For instance, SNHU's general studies degree offers dozens of potential concentrations, including:

  • Business
  • Creative writing
  • Information technology
  • Psychology
  • Sport management

Whether or not you choose a concentration, this bachelor's degree can well prepare you for a wide range of careers. It can also ready you for further education if you are pursuing a career that typically requires a master's degree.

Transferring to a General Studies Program

The BA in General Studies program can help students who are continuing their education apply prior coursework or work experiences toward a degree. “This can include placement tests, previous classes and military credit,” Hobbs said. “Essentially, the general studies degree is designed to help students achieve their goal of a degree without having to start over because they transferred universities.”

Some schools offer free transfer credit evaluations so prospective students can find out how many of their existing credits will be accepted. If you want to know how many courses you have left to finish your degree in general studies, it's as simple as this at SNHU:

  1. Complete the free 5-minute online application. There’s no obligation after filling it out.
  2. Get your transcripts requested—for free. Chat with an admission counselor, and we'll request your transcripts on your behalf.
  3. Receive your free evaluation. Soon after all your transcripts are in, you'll get your official evaluation. It will show you what was transferred in – and what classes you need to complete.

You might be surprised to learn how close you are to graduation. Hobbs said most general studies students are within 15 classes of completing their degree.

Discover more about SNHU's bachelor’s in general studies: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

Ashley Wallis is an Army veteran and writer with a BA in English Language and Literature from SNHU. She is currently living in the Denver area. Find her on Twitter @AshDWallis.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.