We should remove electives from higher education
What we use our liberal arts degree for (and how much we spend on it) has changed.
This year, two BYU schools will become the first universities to remove all electives from certain bachelor degrees—students can now graduate in three years instead of four, paying much less money on tuition and only taking classes relevant to their degrees.
“We have found a way to reduce the bachelor degree from 120 credits to just 90 credits without losing key outcomes,” Dr. J.D. Griffith, Vice President of Administration at BYU-Pathway Worldwide said in a LinkedIn post. “When a student is struggling to eat or acquiring huge financial loans, universities shouldn't be requiring them to take the equivalent of a year's worth of ‘elective’ credits.”
BYU is followed by a dozen colleges and universities hoping to do the same—among them Georgetown University, Portland State University, and Utica University. As our degrees get more expensive, these universities advocate for making education solely vocational—relevant to how a student will make money after college.
Why should students spend a year studying art, philosophy, and religion when they are getting a degree in computer science?
Maybe it’s time to remove the "liberal arts" from our "liberal arts" degrees.
The liberal arts education is an ideal from Greek antiquity—when philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus valued the quadrium (the scientific arts including arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the trivium (the humanities including grammar, logic, and rhetoric) as essential to a well-rounded person capable of contributing to society, voting on world leaders, presiding over a jury, and participating in military service.
To create such an enlightened citizenry, Epicurus believed education should be accessible to all. He intentionally established his garden of learning just down the street from Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Stoa with the goal to create a place where all humans could learn, not just the elite. Women and slaves frequented the garden and engaged in debate, logic, and rhetoric with all the rest.
In the millennia since, we have kept the liberal arts but didn’t keep it accessible to all. Instead, we enshrined it in an institution that has become exceedingly expensive and often financially ruinous to students who won’t improve their income potential as a result. And what is the point of an expensive degree if it does not improve someone’s vocational status enough that the tuition can be afforded by their new wages?
“What do you do when 34% of your students sometimes struggle to find at least 2 meals a day?” Griffith asks. “You find a way to get them to a bachelor's degree quicker.”
And you certainly don’t charge them $5,000 for art classes.
Unlike the other universities vying for a three-year degree, through BYU-Pathway, both BYU-Idaho and Ensign College offer degrees that are online and asynchronous, making their degrees available worldwide. Griffith thinks that’s why they were the first to be approved by the accrediting authority. As of 2023, the schools are attended by 67,000 students living in 180 countries. Most students—20,000 of them—live in Africa.
“When you're telling a student from Africa, who is struggling to find two meals a day, where unemployment rates are through the roof, and they’re doing everything they can just to subsist in life, to ‘take any class you want, just for the fun of it.’ That's not a good answer. It was those African students who really got our attention and had us asking: ‘why are we making these students take 30 elective credits?’”
The schools do a lot to remove boundaries to education. Not only are classes asynchronous so students can study on their own time, but tuition is priced according to a country's economic status: BYU-Idaho students pay $194 per credit hour on campus, domestic students pay $81 online, and international students pay $14 on average. All textbooks are ebooks, and Griffith says they are working to eliminate even that expense now that so much information is free and readily available online.
Students also earn certificates, associate degrees, and ultimately a bachelor’s degree along the way so that, even if they leave school after a year, they are already credentialed in something that might improve their career and their income potential. Griffith calls them “stackable degrees.”
“Most universities, you declare your bachelor's degree, and then what happens when life gets in the way or you follow a spouse or for whatever reason you need to leave college? You come away with just abundant hours and nothing to show for it,” Griffith says. “In many of these countries, a certificate from a U.S. school might be all they need to gain better employment and to double or triple their income. Some students can stop at that.”
The schools partner with the social-impact staffing agency Bloom to ensure students have access to a remote work job upon graduating.
I think it’s important that schools provide an increase in earning potential (considering their cost), but that doesn’t mean I don’t still think artistic pursuits valuable. I’m with those ancient philosophers—they are vital! But the cost per credit hour doesn’t justify their inclusion in the modern university system and they could be much more affordably achieved elsewhere. If it is a well-rounded person we seek, perhaps they would better become so if they were financially supported enough to pursue their intellectual curiosities.
And we can now do so free on the internet where likeminded communities can gather around a Substack newsletter, a YouTube channel, a Discord chat server, an online Zoom course, or a Wikipedia rabbit hole to learn the things we are most interested in. Epicurus himself was self-taught, and his students gathered in the garden by their own intellectual curiosities. Those avenues are much more widely available to us now than Epicurus garden once was. I’ve spent hours studying his philosophy without ever spending a dollar on education or stepping foot in a classroom to do so!
Reading and self-study were the bedrock of ancient philosophers. And if we still want for a more formal understanding, programs like The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research have made the liberal arts accessible to the everyday student. What started as a group of friends wanting to read Plato’s Republic together, has since become a collection of classes, each a month long, in which students can read and study a text together after work. If it is a liberal arts education we want, we can get it for much less than the cost of a university elective.
I still long for the Epicurean ideal—a wise and enlightened citizenry—but I don’t think electives are how we get there. Not when degrees have become so expensive and require a high-paying job to make the education worth it. BYU-Pathway shares this ideal, and the organization is subsidized in their mission by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We can't build more campuses, and yet we have covenant-keeping members of the church all over the world. Why can't they get a BYU education? Simply because they were born in Albania should not preclude them from getting a BYU education,” Griffith says. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feels that all faithful, covenant-keeping members of the church should have access to a church-based education regardless of their circumstances.”
People of any faith can get a BYU-Idaho or Ensign College degree, Griffith clarifies, but it’s still going to be a “gospel-based education.”
This is nothing new—many schools across the country offer some moral foundation as part of the curriculum. The Greek philosophers themselves espoused various beliefs on the human condition. Epicurus’ theology of death is perhaps his most practiced: that death is simply the end and thus we will not be around to fear it. This belief is so central to his school of thought that it is inscribed on many Epicurean tombstones: Non fui, fui, non-sum, non-curo (I was not, I was; I am not, I care not).
Starting in April 2024, BYU-Idaho students enrolled through BYU-Pathway will be able to receive a three-year bachelor's degree in applied business management, software development, applied health, professional studies, or family and human services. Ensign College students enrolled through BYU-Pathway will be able to receive three-year degrees in information technology or communications. These degrees were chosen because they are relevant to the most needed and best-paying careers internationally.
These three-year degrees aren’t eligible for financial aid, but Griffith says that’s a good thing. It is financial aid that has driven education costs so high.
“Because of federal financial aid, what is the motivation for universities to keep costs low? I actually don't know if there is any motivation to keep costs low,” he says.
Griffith thinks organizations around the world could stand to benefit from the same model: A U.S. education available around the world, at costs anyone can afford, delivered asynchronously online so that anyone can participate, and in less time to suit their lives. In this, they are not just pioneering the future of education, but also heralding a return to the past: a modern Epicurean garden available to everyone, and the creation of a wise and enlightened citizenry globally, not just at a handful of elite universities.
I can only hope schools around the world do the same.
But I’d love to know your thoughts! Please join us for further discussion in the literary salon! 👇🏻
Thanks for reading!