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What Exactly Are General Education Credits?


November 23, 2015

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young man at college

So, you’ve enrolled in college and you’re super pumped about your degree in Marine Biology.

Then, you find out that you have to take a bunch of random subjects before you even start studying coral reefs and the migrating habits of narwhals! What’s that about?

Welcome to the world of General Education.

What are General Education Credits?

General Education is the first part of a degree, before you get into the Area of Study courses (the main classes that define your degree) or top off the degree with Free Electives.

Basically, General Education (or Gen Ed for short) is required curriculum that makes up the foundation of an undergraduate degree. This set of standard classes goes by many other names, including Core Curriculum and Shared Experience.

How much of my degree will be General Education?

Colleges (and even individual campuses of the same university) have a lot of leeway in determining how many General Education credits go into their offered degrees. However, most general education requirements cover ⅓ to ½ of a degree, between 42-60 semester-based college credits. Highly-focused or technical degrees may have fewer Gen Ed requirements to allow for more time on core subjects.

What courses are considered “Gen Ed” classes?

While university standards vary dramatically, here are several categories of classes you will likely find on your Gen Ed requirements. (All credit estimates assume a semester-hour system. Required credits would be different for universities operating under a quarter-hour system.) Note: The degree you choose can affect your General Education requirements. For example, although General Education requires math credits across the board, an engineering major would need Calculus 1 and 2, while a music major could take any math available.

English: The skill of composing coherent sentences is sometimes overlooked, but it is one of the most foundational aspects of cultural communication. Nearly every school requires 6 credits of English such as:

  • English Composition
  • College Composition

Math: Whether running an organization, working in a business, or managing a home, adult life goes much more smoothly with at least basic number skills. Most degrees require 3-6 math credits, although math-intensive degrees will require more. Courses that fit into this category include:

  • Algebra - (Other titles could include College Algebra, Intro to Algebra, or Foundations of Algebra)
  • Geometry
  • Calculus
  • Trigonometry
  • Statistics
  • Quantitative analysis

Natural Science: Science is much more than rock collecting or the domain of geeks. As the study of the natural world, it gives us a framework for safely and creatively interacting with the matter that surrounds us. Colleges typically require 3 to 8 credits of natural science, including subjects like:

  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Ecology
  • Geology
  • Environmental science
  • Astronomy
  • Physics
  • Oceanography

Social Sciences: Social sciences give us insight into who humans are and how we interact with one another. As the study of human groups, social sciences encompass:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • History
  • Economics
  • Political science
  • Government
  • Geography

Humanities: Culture is a huge part of civilization, so every well-educated person needs a little insight into how people express themselves in a culture. With such a broad range of subjects, colleges vary widely on what constitutes “humanities,” but often include courses on:

  • Art
  • Music
  • Communication
  • Speech
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • Literature
  • Ethics
  • Languages
  • History (rarely)

Diversity: A newcomer to Gen Ed requirements, diversity courses teach students to value other cultures and beliefs. Depending on the school, diversity courses may include:

  • Religion
  • Cultural diversity
  • Social responsibility
  • World religions (also a humanities subject)

General Education Electives: This Gen Ed category can include your choice of subjects from the English, Math, Natural Sciences, Humanities, and Social Science categories. Often, your college will give you a list of options and tell you how many courses to choose. For example, “choose any 3 courses from Social Sciences, Humanities, and/or Natural Sciences.”

Special thanks to Jared Brandau and the Unbound Research Department for lending their expertise to this post. Every year, the Research team builds hundreds of customized degree plans to help students with transfer credit or specific goals find the best route to a degree.


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