Electives Can Play a Crucial Role in Education, So Let’s Stop Neglecting Them

October 25, 2015

Electives are the neglected offspring of American undergraduate education. Accrediting bodies have little to say about them. A keyword search through the New England regional standards reveals a single mention: "Wherever possible, the institution … affords undergraduate students the opportunity to pursue knowledge and understanding through unrestricted electives."

That assertion, though valuable, stops far short of conveying expectations about the role of electives in a student’s overall educational program. In addition, the operational definition of "elective credits" has become degraded. Now it merely signifies those credits over and above major-program and general-education credits that raise a student’s total to the required minimum for graduation.

Yet nothing in accrediting standards would seem to question the continued desirability of a roughly equal division between general-education, major-program, and elective credits. The reality, however, is anything but equality. At the three institutions where I have worked — for six, 14, and 21 years — the overall share of the undergraduate curriculum occupied by general education remained about the same. Major programs, on the other hand, tended to follow an upward "credit creep." At these institutions, as elsewhere, administrators and student advisers understandably discouraged bachelor’s candidates from assembling gratuitous credits beyond those required for graduation. The predictable result was a decrease in elective credits.

It's time to return electives to their time-honored and still important place as one of the three cornerstones of a high-quality undergraduate education.
And yet those responsible for curricular change know the value of electives in their own and others’ lives. During my own undergraduate years, I interrupted a string of English-literature courses long enough to take an elective that allowed me to explore Peace Corps training through the lens of educational psychology. This confirmed an inclination to redirect my plans and join the Peace Corps, which led to three years as a volunteer and staff member, and a first career as a comparative sociologist with a specialty in Southeast Asia.

A successful lawyer tells me one of her pleasures in life is teaching part time in media studies, the product of an elective taken in college. An art teacher took an art course while preparing for a career as a biologist and "never looked back." A onetime veterinarian-in-the-making enrolled in a film class, which ended up launching a career as a film editor in demand for television and movies. And so on.

To test these assertions about the straitened place of electives in present-day undergraduate education, I examined the academic transcripts of a sample of bachelor’s graduates from a recent class at the college where I work. I found that most graduates do have a number of courses that count for neither major-program nor general-education credit. Few of those courses, however, could be regarded as true electives. Most, in fact, are a byproduct of early searches for a major, on the part of students who arrived "undecided."

It’s time to return electives to their time-honored and still important place as one of the three cornerstones of a high-quality undergraduate education. It is time to look at electives more intentionally, through the lens of a "program." That means with goals, intended outcomes, and — I hate to say it — a means of evaluating or assessing the extent to which they have been advanced.

Electives should also be an explicit subject of advising conversations. Will a student use electives to explore a potential interest that may (or may not) turn out to be a lifelong passion? Discover a career path she had not anticipated? Be exposed to a new pleasure? Explore part of a major that isn’t required?

Perhaps your college or university already does all this. Mine doesn’t. But colleges everywhere should. At a time of justifiably heightened concern over the fortunes of American college students, serious attention to electives can improve their college educations, their life chances, and their lives in general.

Daniel Regan is dean of academic affairs at Johnson State College.