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Kara Sherrer Headshot

The College "Weed-Out" Approach Stifles Students' Intellectual Curiosity

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"I highly recommend that you don't take Economics 100 unless you absolutely have to."

I looked at my pre-major adviser incredulously. As a first-semester college freshman, I didn't see how a 100-level course in what seemed to be a fairly common discipline could be that hard.

"Why shouldn't I take it?" I queried.

"It's a weed-out course. Essentially, it's designed to make anyone who won't be able to handle the rigorous Economics degree fail out."

"Oh," was all I said in response.

I didn't have the remotest intention of majoring in Economics. I simply had the audacity to think that knowing how money worked was a good thing, even for people who weren't economic geniuses.

The next semester, I became even more audacious and decided that I should try my hand at basic programming. I felt like everyone was constantly talking about website development and app design and the increasing importance of technology, so it seemed like it would be helpful to acquire some practical knowledge regarding these topics.

When course registration came around, I searched the registration website for "programming" and scrolled through the results. The courses were all listed in the undergraduate engineering school, which I wasn't a part of, and most of them had multiple prerequisites, which I hadn't taken.

Once again, the message was clear: unless you're planning to have a career in this field, don't bother trying to learn about it.

This "weed-out" approach is actually fairly standard among universities, and it's especially common when it comes to STEM subjects (or science, technology, math and engineering), the very same fields that I had been discouraged from casually studying.

To some extent, I understand trying to encourage the deep knowledge of a single subject. After all, you don't want a surgeon who is only mildly curious about the human body to operate on you.

But the pace of the new job market moves a lot faster than the medical field and other similar disciplines. The average worker only stays at a single job for about 4.4 years, so in the approximately 12 years it takes to become a doctor, most people will have changed jobs three or even four times. Clearly, adaption and quickly acquiring new skills is the next normal.

Yet universities' all-or-nothing approach toward many subjects harms students who only have a beginner's interest in those areas. I wasn't looking to become an economics or a programming wizard; I just wanted to acquire some basic knowledge that I thought would help move me forward in my life. However, I was denied that opportunity because I didn't want to become an expert in those fields.

Unfortunately, the implications of this educational mindset are far greater than simply not being able to casually study a subject. As these "weed-outs" accumulate over time, they begin to telegraph a very clear message to students: curiosity is not welcome here. Unless you are trying to major in this subject, don't take this class. Stay within the departmental bounds of whatever major you have declared. If you're looking for intellectual exploration, try Philosophy 101 instead.

This attitude openly opposes the adaption needed to navigate the job market post-college. If you are not curious -- if you are not constantly trying to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills -- how are you supposed to switch careers every 4.4 years?

The relevance of a college degree to getting a job has already been called into question, and universities aren't helping their cause by stifling academic curiosity (even if it's unintentional). In fact, there's evidence that only about 27 percent of college graduates find a job that is strictly related to their major, which makes it doubly important to study subjects that are outside prescribed degree requirements.

No wonder traditional universities are feeling such pressure from massive open online courses (or MOOCs). With their multiple levels of commitment, MOOCs provide for both the intrigued beginner and the committed veteran -- not just those who want an in-depth knowledge. My quick browse of Coursera, one of the most popular MOOCs, revealed introductory classes in both economics and programming. A free online website now offers what my own brick-and-mortar university could not -- or would not.

It remains to be seen how universities will navigate the rapidly changing landscape of higher education. But one thing is for sure: it's far from an academic sin to be casually interested in a subject -- and a casual interest could plausibly become the gateway into an unexpected (but much-needed) job. The sooner both universities and their students realize this, the more prepared those graduating students will be to face whatever the tumultuous professional world decides to throw at them next.