General Education: Definition, Requirements, Types & Credits

General education refers to a core curriculum of classes designed to give students a broad and interdisciplinary academic foundation to complement their studies in a specific major. The purpose of gen ed courses is to develop essential academic skills including critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, decision-making and effective communication.

General education requirements differ according to the school and the specific major being pursued. But most include classes in English, math, natural science, social science, arts and humanities and foreign language. More recently, schools have been adding courses in diversity to their general education requirements.

Most schools require 40 to 60 general education credits for a bachelor’s degree and 20 to 40 for an associate’s degree. General education credits are easier to transfer than credits from advanced classes within a major.

What is General Education (General Education Courses)

General education is a set of classes that form the foundation of a well-rounded education as one of the key benefits. Also called gen ed, general education courses offer each student an interdisciplinary core curriculum regardless of the degree they are pursuing. As a result, students gain an understanding of a wider range of subjects than are covered in courses taken within a specific major.

Gen ed courses make up one-third to one-half of most associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

General education courses are important because they develop key skills such as analysis, verbal and written communication, collaboration, problem solving, quantitative literacy, decision making and critical thinking required to be a successful student and to succeed in your future career field and as an engaged, ethical and knowledgeable member of society.

General education courses include information that a first-year or second-year student should master. In the third and fourth years of a bachelor’s degree, major courses in the same fields offer advanced learning and understanding of the subjects. For example, general college math is a gen ed core curriculum class while trigonometry and differential equations are courses that math majors must complete.

Gen ed courses are required courses. In that way, they are different from elective courses that the student decides whether to take. However, some college courses can be taken either as required gen ed courses or as elective courses.

What Are General Education Requirements?

General education classes are a set of courses that fulfill the school’s core curriculum objectives required for completing a degree program. The purpose is to provide each student with a foundational education and set of skills that is broader than they will receive in classes required to complete a major.

Each school decides on general education courses to include in its core curriculum. Another factor that determines specifically required gen ed courses are the major you are pursuing. For example, a portion of the gen ed courses for engineering students are often different from those required for liberal arts students.

Gen ed courses account for between one-third and one-half of the credit hours required for the degree. For an associate’s degree, 20-30 general education credits are commonly required. For a bachelor’s degree, from 40 to 60 credits of core curriculum classes must be completed.

Students must also fulfill general education requirements to declare a major and be accepted into the major program. This is because each major has its own set of gen ed class requirements, and the school must ensure that the students it accepts into each major have met those requirements. 

What Are Different Types of General Education Classes?

The general education requirements at most colleges and universities include some or all of the following types of general education classes:

  • English Language and Literature
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Mathematics
  • Natural Science
  • Social Sciences
  • Foreign Language
  • Diversity

General education classes that form the core curriculum are typically 100 and 200 level classes, though taking upper level courses to fulfill the requirement is allowed at many schools.

These classes are designed to provide general knowledge in each subject. The goal is a general education program covering many different academic disciplines that produces a well-rounded education and prepares the student to gain a depth of knowledge in a specific major.

Types of General Education Classes

English Language and Literature

English language and literature is the study of the English language that enables the student to effectively read, write and verbally communicate in English. English literature provides a broad knowledge of important books and genres in English. A strong grasp of the English language is a core competency in most gen ed programs.

English language and literature includes classes such as:

  • English composition
  • Rhetoric
  • Creative writing
  • Research and writing
  • Linguistics
  • Literary theory
  • English literature
  • British literature

English language and literature courses are required for majors such as English, communication, linguistics, journalism, creative writing, technical writing and public relations.

Arts and Humanities

Arts and humanities involve the study of human culture and cultural perspectives, thought, musical and artistic expression.

Classes in the category of arts and humanities include:

  • History
  • Art history
  • Theater
  • Music appreciation
  • Literature
  • Philosophy
  • Visual arts
  • Performing arts

Courses in arts and humanities are often prerequisites and good preparation majoring in history, art history, fine arts, music education, performing arts, cultural studies, religious studies, philosophy, literature and comparative literature, and classics.

Mathematics

Mathematics is the science of numbers, quantities, patterns, changes and other numerical processes. It can be studied as pure math or applied math.

Core classes in math include:

  • Algebra
  • Calculus
  • Trigonometry
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Quantitative reasoning

Majors that rely on classes in math are mathematics, engineering, physics, biology, psychology, business, economics, accounting, finance, computer science and other STEM majors.

Natural Science

Natural science is the branch of science that studies the physical world and scientific principles that apply to it.

Courses that are part of a natural science curriculum are:

  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Environmental science
  • Geology

College majors that include a large number of natural sciences courses include physics, biology, chemistry, geology, environmental science and biochemistry.

Social Sciences

Social sciences is the study of human society, culture, human behavior and relationships between individuals and groups.

Classes that are part of a social science curriculum include:

  • Psychology
  • Political science
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • Economics
  • Archaeology
  • Geography
  • Linguistics

Majors that require taking social science classes include political science, psychology, sociology, economics, history, criminology, social work and anthropology.

Foreign Language

Foreign language is the study of modern languages from around the world that are non native to the country where it is studied.

Common foreign language classes included as general education are:

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German
  • Chinese
  • Russian

Foreign language studies are useful when majoring in a foreign language or in fields such as international relations, international business, international studies, linguistics, tourism and hospitality management, education and cultural studies. And taking 6 to 12 credits of a foreign language is also required at most schools for a wide range of majors including psychology, sociology, accounting and history. 

Diversity

The field of diversity is the study of social differences within culture that include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, age and other characteristics of identity.

Classes taken as part of diversity studies include:

  • Ethnic studies
  • Gender studies
  • Multicultural studies
  • LGBTQ+ studies
  • African American studies
  • Gender psychology

Classes in diversity are required in majors such as women’s studies, sociology, social work, psychology, education, ethnic studies and human resources.

What are the Differences in General Education Among Different Majors?

Each college major has a unique set of general education courses that serve as prerequisites for the major. There is overlap in the gen ed course requirements for many majors. Here are popular college major categories representing different fields of studies and the differences in the general education classes among them.

It is important to check the specific gen ed requirements at any school for majors you are considering.

Business Majors: General education classes for business majors include college algebra and calculus, introductory business courses, economics, English composition, natural science courses such as biology and chemistry, social science courses like sociology and psychology, humanities classes like history and philosophy, political science, and courses in communication and public speaking, ethics and foreign language.

Computer Science Majors: Required general education courses for computer science majors are heavy in math such as linear algebra, calculus, and analytical skills. Students in this major also take gen ed classes in natural sciences like physics and chemistry, English comp classes, social science courses such as philosophy and economics, courses in humanities such as history, philosophy and literature, foreign language courses, and courses in communication, ethics and philosophy.

English Literature Majors: Students in the English Literature major take gen ed courses in English writing and composition, introduction to English literature, history of literature, foreign language, philosophy, poetry and creative writing, drama or playwriting and cultural studies.

Health and Science Majors: Students that major in health and science programs take general education classes in biology, chemistry, math, healthcare systems, medical research, physics, social sciences, communication, nutrition, medical ethics, public health, anatomy, physiology, medical terminology and microbiology.

Humanities Majors: Students that choose a humanities major take core curriculum classes in literature, English writing or composition, environmental studies, social sciences, philosophy, history, foreign language, ethics, cultural studies, visual arts and art history, comparative literature, religious studies and gender or women’s studies.

Social Science Majors: Students seeking a degree in a social science major take general education classes in sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, public health, communication, geography, math, history, philosophy, ethics, social work, English composition, research methods and environmental studies.

STEM Majors: Students in STEM majors take general education classes including English composition or writing, basic and advanced math, physics, computer science, statistics, biology, chemistry, communication, history, research methods, data analytics, foreign language and engineering ethics.

What Are General Education Credits?

General education credits are credits earned in a set of classes required in a student’s degree program with the goal of providing a well-rounded education. Gen ed credits are earned in classes that provide a broad range of knowledge that complements the narrower and deeper education received in classes within the student’s major.

A general education core curriculum is designed to give each student necessary skills for success beyond college in their future career and as an engaged citizen. Skills gained in earning gen ed credits include critical thinking, analysis, effective written and verbal communication, and decision-making.

Students earning an associate degree are required to complete approximately 20 to 30 general education credits. For a bachelor’s degree, 40 to 60 general education credits are required depending on the school and the degree program.

While each major has a unique set of general education credits, common class subjects include English composition, college math, and classes in natural science, social science and humanities.

What Other Methods Can Be Used to Earn General Education Credits?

General education credits can be earned by other methods than taking college courses. Additional ways to earn general education credits are:

  • Advanced Placement Exams, or AP Exams
  • College-level Examination Program or CLEP
  • DSST Exams
  • IB or International Baccalaureate Exams
  • TECEP Exams
  • ALEKS
  • University Challenge Exams
  • School-specific Exams
  • Military Training and Experience
  • Portfolio Assessment
  • Independent Study

Are General Education Credits Easier to Transfer Between Colleges Compared to Major Course Credits?

Yes, general education credits are more easily transferred than courses required for a specific major.

There are several reasons why it is easier to transfer gen ed courses than major courses. First, most schools have similar gen ed or core curriculum classes. Secondly, general education courses are often numbered the same or similarly, such as algebra 1 and algebra 2 or Spanish 1 and Spanish 2. And many schools have similar or reciprocal transfer policies that make it easier to transfer general education credits.

What Is the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum?

The Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum is a set of gen ed requirements for community colleges in California. Known as the IGETC, this curriculum makes it easy for students in 2-year community colleges in California to transfer to 4-year schools within the University of California UC system and California State University CSU system.

What Is a General Education Degree?

A general education degree is a degree program designed to give students a broad educational foundation. Also called a general studies degree, a general education degree provides students with exposure to a wide range of academic disciplines.

Most general education degrees include classes with a high degree of transferability, meaning that the credit hours earned are easily transferred to another college or university.

General education is also a common associate’s degree program. Features of a general education associate’s degree are a broad range of essential courses in math, natural and social sciences, and humanities. General education associate’s degrees are known for their transferability to 4-year schools where the student can complete a bachelor’s degree. 

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