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Americans spend 12 years in school which is more than in many places, yet, when they come to university, they continue to study a general education program that may be unrelated to their major.

My understanding is that it eats up a better portion of their first two years, and that students do not necessarily even apply for a specific major at the time they start.

Considering how much an average American student is paying I would have expected there would be a higher demand for more specialised programs with fewer unnecessary courses. Particularly since universities in the US are very sensitive to the demand for their services. Why doesn't this seem to occur?

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    Since the existing answers didn't spend too much time on your second question about majors, and since it's partly a separate question, I tried to integrate this observation about majors into your first question and removed the second question. I agree that answers might discuss the second aspect as part of answering your first question, but it's better for StackExchange questions to be more focused and they should not contain multiple questions. I felt it was important to edit now so that we don't end up with a mix of answers that mostly answer the first part or the second part only.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 8, 2022 at 16:32
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    Many would disagree that gen ed courses are "unnecessary". Dec 8, 2022 at 16:52
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    It's another means for universities to generate revenue for themselves. Half a century ago I may have had an answer related to being well rounded, but having gone to Ohio State, a large and at least reasonably respected university, I would argue that they were a way for the school to make money. They were a horrid waste of time. There was little academic rigor, most of them were blow off classes that served as little more than a mandatory distraction. Many were graded more on some PHD candidate's opinion rather than strong argument. I don't buy that they made people more well rounded. Dec 8, 2022 at 21:26
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    @GrantCurell Anecdotally, I went to a pretty average university, and my gen eds all gave me valuable experience and knowledge. I cannot think of any course I took that I have not already used multiple times in my life. Were all of them worth thousands of dollars? Probably not, but other courses were worth way more than I paid for them, those thousands of dollars also indirectly paid for many other experiences in college, and overall it has already paid off. Dec 8, 2022 at 21:53

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I attended high school both in Europe and in the US (exchange programme), and my experience was that the US educational system is roughly "one step behind", timewise, compared to the European one. The academic level I experienced in the senior year of US high school was roughly comparable to my last year of middle school in Italy. From friends who came through the US college/university system, I also get the feeling that their first few years of higher education (the general-knowledge, no-major-declared-yet years you are wondering about) covered roughly the same range of topics and complexity as my Italian Liceo.

For example: the highest maths class I took in the US was Trigonometry (and even this was done mostly using a graphing calculator). There were harder classes one could choose, sometimes for AP credits, but you could also easily complete your HS maths requirements with an accounting class. In Italy, I had started calculus (non-optionally) years earlier. Likewise literature was very much at a pretty basic familiarity (rather than analysis) level and foreign languages were mostly films and vocab quizzes.

Now this is my own experience, and there were other aspects (the US HS was in a very rural location, and I did not pick some of the hardest classes as they were held at the local college and I couldn't drive). But all other exchange students from Europe had a similar experience and we all easily coasted on the knowledge we'd gained in our early teens, even with the language barrier.

As to why, I have a few theories, but I don't claim to have an answer.

For one thing, European education tends to stratify much earlier - in many countries, you choose at some point in your early teens whether to pursue a more academic, university-focussed path, or a technical qualification. To do this, you need to have a variety of schools available within range - much of the US is too sparsely populated for this. Stratification allows European schools to challenge the more academically oriented students at an earlier age and get them to University with a more solid background; it also means that important life decisions are made much earlier, and may be much more biased by factors such as family background and socioeconomic status rather than the student's inclinations and skills.

The focus on non-academic endeavours was huge in the US compared to Europe. Sports, extracurriculars, clubs, productions - all these had the same standing, if not sometimes more, than classes, and were allocated time proportionally. Even some of the classes were, effectively, clubs - like "yearbook editing". I am not making a value judgement here: do extracurriculars distract from academic pursuits, or provide a more rounded education? Is it a better idea to dedicate your teenage years to study? Sports? Art?

But a practical result was that US students reached university without a lot of the general knowledge that European students - especially those who went to the more academically oriented types of high school - had acquired at their age. The first few years of college/Uni provided that, for those who went.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 9, 2022 at 15:41
  • I think this answer has some useful insight in it, but overall it suffers from being mostly anecdotal. The question and this answer share a challenge, which is that the "educational system" in the US is the opposite of monolithic. Education is the responsibility of the 50 states plus DC, which means there are 51 different pre-university public school standards in the US. Plus many students attend private schools, are home schooled, and some don't even complete any kind of school and simply pass a GED before going to university. Your experience in one system is too limited. Dec 27, 2022 at 15:04
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The goal of American higher education is more civic and cultural than seems to be the case in Europe.

European students seem to apply to a university for a specific course, in a specific topic, and then take courses in that field nearly exclusively, for 3 years. This creates a high level professional in the chosen field. A physicist will learn what a physicist should know (and little else).

American students apply to a university, often but not necessarily with a specific course or topic in mind. Then they take approximately a year of courses that deal with things that American society believes (or believed) that all educated, sophisticated, or refined citizens should know. Then they focus in upon their specific field, and for the next three years learn the same things that their European equivalent learns. Which is to say that a physicist will learn what a physicist should know, as well as what every educated adult/citizen/person should know.

It is a difference of goal, or world view. At least originally.

There are perfectly fine arguments to be made that it continues only because of the force of tradition, helped along by the financial interests of the universities, and the desire of the students to have a "full" college experience. But we can make similarly cynical arguments about the European system, which might be characterized as churning out tools to be used up in specific jobs and roles, and not citizens. Cogs to be subsumed by a machine, instead of equals for a democracy.

But there is no particular reason to make either of these cynical arguments. They are different systems with different histories. That would be sufficient for me.

As far as whether Americans apply to specific courses or majors, 50 to 80% of American students enter University with a major. Many, perhaps most, schools will accept applicants who are as of yet undecided, and students may change their major and course of study after entering a university. But the most common path is to apply to a specific university for a specific major or course. And for more prestigious or competitive majors, colleges, courses, &c, this will be a practical necessity.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 8, 2022 at 17:56
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A few points:

  • Market forces don't really apply here because schools that want to be accredited (which is pretty much all of them since students can't use Government-sponsored loans at unaccredited schools) are forced to require 120 credits for a bachelor's degree. 120 credits is about 40 classes. So there is no option of graduating faster by skipping the "unnecessary" classes.
  • Some schools like Brown famously have an "open curriculum," allowing students to count to 120 however they want. But in practice, most students who attend schools like Brown are there precisely because they want to take many different subjects, not because they want to load up on a single subject.
  • Unlike in certain other countries (e.g., France), US students do not specialize so much during high school. So, most students have taken only the introductory classes in each subject, and few understand the differences between similar subjects (e.g., chemistry / biochemistry / chemical engineering) or the career options that each subject might provide. So, many first-year students are not ready to declare a major and appreciate having an extra year or so to decide.
  • As others have noted, the general philosophy is that university is not trade school; rather, university graduates should be well-rounded scholars. Certainly, it would be nice if all of our professionals had excellent reading/writing/speaking skills, could think logically, solve problems, use technology, and had some understanding of global culture, history, and a foreign language or two. Whether most colleges' general education requirements really achieve this goal seems doubtful to me.
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  • Can you elaborate on what you meant with 120 credits? What if a student specifically wanted to load up on a particular major and ignore everything else, could they? Dec 9, 2022 at 6:10
  • As I said, some schools like Brown would in principle allow that, though it rarely/never happens. But most schools require that the 120 credits be distributed a certain way. Most classes are 3 credits, but some can be more to reflect increased workload (and some “seminars” are just 1 credit and have minimal requirements).
    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2022 at 6:29
  • Why don't they? Dec 9, 2022 at 7:50
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    Brown is pretty hard to get into; most students who are good enough for Brown and laser-focused on a particular subject probably go to a school that has a better reputation for that specific subject (e.g., Brown is considered a great college, but it's not a physics powerhouse in the way that MIT is). And Brown is an edge case; even if half the students there and at similar schools did as you suggest, that would be a tiny fraction of US college students.
    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2022 at 9:32
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    "US students do not specialize at all during high school". This is just not accurate. Even at a typical public high school it is fairly easy to both choose electives all in one field and also progress farther in required courses related to that field. In my typical public high school, I progressed further in STEM than most students, while others took four years of fine arts and art history classes, or marching band and drama, or creative writing, auto shop, technical drawing, etc., etc. Plus there’s private schools and magnet schools that offer even more specialization in various fields. Dec 9, 2022 at 14:57
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On top of all the explanations given, there is powerful financial incentive to do so. Why let an enrolled student leave in 2 years when you can force them to stay for 4?

As part of that financial incentive, universities pander to students. Some students are much more likely to enroll and pay for a class in Klingon language than a class in business statistics. My experience shows significant detours from practical knowledge in higher education. Universities do not take responsibility for their offerings in this context. Its not their job to prepare students. Its their job to attract students and money. Thats how the gears turn.

You can argue all you want about the benefits and the dedication, as long as you mention the fact that university gets their money.

I would also point out that American universities are notorious for not adequately preparing students for the workforce, which erodes some of the more --shall we say sympathetic-- justifications.

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  • The alternative to having 2 years of gen-eds would be 2 extra years of focusing on your major....for some reason I think everyone complains about universities not preparing students for work, not just in America. Ironically, many liberals in Russia are saying the same and point at American universities as the shining example of how things should be. Dec 9, 2022 at 14:27
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    I think thats how Europe does it right? Specifically target a field with less gen eds? The reason everyone complains is because they have a legitimate complaint lol
    – user156207
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:47
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    My understanding that it is the general trend in Europe. I can only speak for Britain in Russia. In the UK, students study for 3 years while focusing on their major. The perfect system if you ask me. There are no gen eds. In Russia, people study for 4 years, and while there definitely some gen eds, they take up relatively little time, are generally not taken seriously by the students, and are considered a sign of a bad program: people are advised to check how much unnecessary junk courses the program they are applying to has since they are considered filler. Dec 9, 2022 at 14:55
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    In my opinion, its not gen eds that are the problem. Its the quality of the gen eds. A course in public speaking or technical writing is great. Courses in pokeman gender analysis? Not so much. Page through a american university course guide and youll be sick to your stomach. And those ridiculous classes fill up mighty quick.
    – user156207
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:59
  • I would not count technical writing as a gen-ed. Being able to write reports as an engineer is a very important skill that you need to work. I could make an argument that it should be taught in high school, but regardless of where it should be taught I wish I had it. The sort of useless gen eds I am taking about are things like philosophy, history, foreign languages, philology... Dec 9, 2022 at 15:41
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My understanding is that ... students do not necessarily even apply for a specific major at the time they start.

It's true that some students do not declare a major when they start their studies, but that's nearly always because they haven't decided on a major yet. It's not the standard practice. Students will often take courses of general usefulness to the handful of majors that they're considering, and then make a decision based on which subjects match their interests and aptitudes. I don't have any specific numbers for you but based on my experiences I'd wager that these "undecided" students are a relatively small percentage of the student population, and few remain that way longer than a semester or two. Most students have at least a vague idea of what they want to study. They might (for example) start as "general business" and then change to "finance" later, where the first few semesters look almost identical for both.

My understanding is that it eats up a better portion of their first two years

This can vary greatly based on the school and on the specific degree program you're pursuing. Students often get some choice over which general ed courses they take, so they can be tailored to match their degree program if the student wishes to do so. For example, I was an engineering major and I chose a technical writing course to satisfy my "language arts" gen-ed requirement. During my entire college career, I believe I only had to take 2-3 general ed courses that didn't contribute to my major or career at least indirectly (although I still enjoyed taking them).

Also, most courses in a degree program require that the student has already completed certain other courses first. The number of prerequisite-free courses can be rather small, so many students have limited options for courses in their major for the first couple of semesters. My first two semesters consisted of one introductory engineering course plus the background math and science courses that I needed to unlock the bulk of the classes in my major. A lot of times that's not enough hours to be considered a full-time student, so your schedule gets padded out with general ed courses. It wasn't until my fourth semester that I was done with the general ed/background courses and started taking nothing but courses in my major. That's not because we had some massive general ed requirement, that's just how long it took me to get through the chain of prerequisites.

Contrast this with one of my roommates. I don't recall exactly what his major was, but his degree program included a large number of courses with few or no prerequisites. Starting from his first semester, he was taking almost exclusively courses from his major with maybe 1 general ed course per semester sprinkled in occasionally. He intentionally chose gen-ed courses completely unrelated to his major as he felt it helped him stay creative and mentally flexible, but that was his choice. His weren't front-loaded like mine were, simply due to the way our respective course lists were structured. You'll see very different experiences between different schools and different degree programs, and sometimes even between different students in the same program.

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    A music degree is like your roommate’s experience: first semester could be 5-6 courses that are for music majors only and only 1-2 core courses. That ratio continues for the next three semesters and then it’s all music until the end. A music degree can be extremely demanding even though it doesn’t lead to a lot of earning potential. Dec 9, 2022 at 15:02

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