Many universities across the country are looking hard at ways to speed more students through bachelor’s programs. For example, the University of Texas at Austin recently adopted the goal of a 70% rate for graduation in four years (up from just over 50% now) by 2016. These are worthy efforts, since they can help students leave college with significantly lower debt. However, little attention has been paid to the most important obstacle to expeditious graduation: namely, the fantastically Byzantine labrinth of curricular requirements through which students must navigate.

UT-Austin again is a case in point. Ten years ago, the University (guided by its new president, Bill Powers) reformed the so-called “core curriculum” requirements. In Texas, all state colleges are required to have a 42-hour “core,” which is in reality nothing but a smorgasbord-style set of “distribution” requirements: so many hours in natural science, so many in the fine arts, etc. What UT did was to add a new layer of complexity to the state-mandated core, requiring UT students to complete a freshman interdisciplinary “signature” course and six special “flags” (including ethnic diversity and global cultures). These new core requirements have created serious bottlenecks for students. Many students are forced to take the “freshman” courses in their third and fourth year because of supply problems.

Why not simply cut the Gordian knot? If we are interested in helping students complete their degrees promptly, we could abolish all “core curriculum” graduation requirements, both at the State and the University level. Decentralizing degree requirements by placing them entirely under the control of individual departments would greatly streamline the process. Is the value of the core as it currently exists (or is likely to exist, given faculty and administration politics) worth the burden to students? I have concluded that it is not, which puts me firmly in opposition to efforts by other reformers, such as ACTA, who encourage trustees to “strengthen” the core for the sake of a more liberal education for all.

Let’s take UT’s “signature courses” as a test case. Every UT student is required to take one of these courses, which are inter-disciplinary and taught (at least in principle) by experienced and popular instructors. First, why should an interdisciplinary course be required? There is no evidence that such courses provide a unique value to students. Second, the quality of the instructor is never a sufficient reason for taking a course: the content must take first priority.

Next time: examining the content of the current core.