A well-designed general education program can provide a breadth of important knowledge, as well as writing and analytical skills that employers often say are lacking in recent college graduates. Still, many students consider general education a waste of time and view courses unrelated to their majors as unnecessary obstacles. 

Should higher education cater more to those students, who are interested in jumping as soon as possible into their major coursework, and who might prefer a quicker path to the job market? If the answer is “yes,” college leaders might look to Europe for inspiration. 

Most European students begin taking courses specific to their major right away. Universities focus on making students experts in their respective fields, and little to no time is spent on coursework perceived to be unrelated to degrees.  

Since students study a range of subjects in high school, the thinking goes, general education in college is redundant. As a result, in Europe it only takes three years to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

This kind of system, or something similar to it, would probably appeal to many American students. And if aspects of the European model were incorporated in the U.S., community colleges in particular might be in the best position to implement them. Those schools already are geared to students who want to earn degrees and certificates in short time. 

Policymakers and community colleges could work to build programs along those lines, following the lead of the European universities. These programs might take between two and three years to complete. Graduates would be expected to possess an understanding of their fields close to or equal to that of graduates of four-year institutions. 

Eliminating general education courses entirely would be undesirable, though, given employers’ preference for employees with the skills and knowledge imparted by them. This new degree —what might be called a “specialist’s degree” — would require courses in math, literature, U.S. history, economics, writing, and science. 

Jamie Shea, an academic adviser at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, says such a degree has “potential.” In a Martin Center interview, she said, “I think it would be nice to have the option.” She added, however, that it would be hard to predict whether employers would respond favorably, and she wondered whether this opportunity for specialization would devalue the traditional liberal arts education. 

To be sure, this proposal is radical. Policymakers would need to debate and study it over the course of months and years. And its implementation would be a complex undertaking, to say the least, considering the issues of accreditation and funding that likely would arise. 

But to Shea’s point about possible employer skepticism toward the specialist’s degree, it’s worth pointing to the very real skepticism employers have toward traditional college degrees. Time and again, surveys reveal that hiring managers are underwhelmed by today’s college graduates — an unsurprising finding given that learning assessments regularly show that large numbers of graduates are ill-prepared for white-collar work. 

This is not to say that colleges wouldn’t need to show that these new programs are rigorous and capable of producing talented graduates. In North Carolina and elsewhere, community colleges have a history of partnering with industry to produce job-ready graduates; schools could exploit those relationships, and forge new ones. They could require students to take the Collegiate Learning Assessment to show how they stack up to those at four-year colleges. These are just a couple of possibilities. 

Regarding the concern that specialist’s degrees could undermine liberal arts education, this instead could be a case in which competition sparks positive change. If the specialist’s degree were to take off, four-year schools would need to show more clearly their added value, or else prospective students might choose the lower-cost community college option. 

And four-year colleges’ enrollment numbers may dip, but in the long run this might be a good thing. Students interested in the world of ideas, liberal education, and advanced learning would still attend traditional programs; over time they might even become the majority on university campuses, improving upon the current academic environment, which often seems too ready to accommodate the lowest common denominator. 

At any rate, importing Europe’s degree model would not be a panacea for American higher education. But for those who recognize the perhaps unfortunate truth that many students simply can’t be bothered with courses outside of their majors, doing so could make the best of the situation. Along the way, it could lower costs and inject healthy competition into the system. 

Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.