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What are Core Requirements?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Core requirements are the name given either to the core courses one must attend in order to be admitted to a school or program, or the courses one must complete, in addition to degree requirements where applicable, in order to graduate. Core requirements are usually basic classes, meant to give a student a liberal arts education. Traditionally, core requirements played an enormous part in the American educational experience, with many schools devoting a large portion of the first two years of study to the core requirements. In recent years, however, this has shifted drastically, with many schools once known for their core requirements largely abandoning them or reducing them to allow for more student choice.

At the junior high school and high school levels, core requirements often make up the vast bulk of a student’s education. Since U.S. states and the federal government generally mandate certain core areas of study, core requirements can get quite lengthy. Within high school core requirements, however, some amount of flexibility may be available. For example, although two years of science curriculum may be requirement, it may be up to the students whether they choose to take biology, physics, chemistry, geology, or some other course which fulfills the core requirement. In this way the core can remain quite large while acknowledging the role of choice, with a small portion of elective classes making up the remainder.

At the university level, core requirements once played a prominent role across the United States. The first two years were generally looked at as a time for students to get the breadth of their education, by fulfilling certain General Education requirements that covered all areas of study. This time was thought to not only give a solid foundation upon which other education could build, but also to help expose students to areas of study they may have been previously unaware of, which could help them make a better-informed choice of major.

These core requirements are being abandoned or lessened at universities across the United States in recent years. This is largely due to the increased depth of study that students are expected to achieve within their major, even at the undergraduate levels. As more students arrive at college with a strong major decision in mind, being forced to take classes unrelated to that major can be frustrating, and in many cases may be the deciding factor in whether a potential student chooses to enroll at a college or not. As a result, even universities that were traditionally quite rigorous in their core requirements, such as the University of Chicago, have begun to scale back their requirements.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a number of colleges remain where virtually the entire curriculum consists of core requirements. St. John’s College, in both Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Annapolis, Maryland, is the most famous example of this sort of school. The curriculum at St. John’s College is built around the Great Books Program, with all students following roughly the same arc. This means a mandatory four years of mathematics, four years of literature, four years of philosophy, four years of political science, four years of Ancient Greek, Middle and Early English, and French, three years of laboratory sciences, and two years of music. This extreme dedication to core requirements is meant to foster students with a broad liberal arts education, in the classical model, and as a result there are no majors awarded.

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