Editorial: Tufts should reassess the distribution requirement to promote equal opportunity, academic freedom

Cartoon by Valeria Velasquez

Tenets of academic freedom and exploration comprise the core of a Tufts education. Tufts aims to provide this education through the Arts and Sciences distribution requirements, which entail the completion of two three-semester-hour-unit courses in five areas of study: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and art. These requirements help students discover new passions and yield a more holistic education; however, constraints on accepted pre-matriculation credits and the overall size of the distribution requirements undermine these central objectives. Distribution requirements limit academic freedom in selecting courses and interact poorly with financial accessibility. To combat these issues, promote equal access and cultivate academic freedom, Tufts should reform its distribution requirements to allow for greater flexibility and equal opportunity within a Tufts education.

Although these requirements facilitate a well-rounded education, they also hold much rigidity and do not allow students to pursue secondary interests in depth. Because students must spend much of their college careers completing these requirements along with the hefty language, world civilization and writing foundation requirements, they lose the opportunity to explore non-major areas of interest. Not only do students lack the ability to explore specific areas of interest, however, they also remain trapped in studying fields that they have no interest in pursuing. If a student was indifferent toward mathematics, for example, during high school and still felt this sentiment after their first mathematics distribution course, they still must enroll in a second mathematics course when they could spend that time further exploring another field of interest. By going more in-depth into a secondary field of passion, inhibited by the current distribution requirements, students could discover countless connections to their major and further develop their intellectual scope for future benefit in graduate school or the workforce. 

This problem affects all students, but those without Advanced Placement (AP) credit and individuals with additional requirements experience these deficits to a greater degree. If a student lacked the financial means to enroll in AP or SAT II exams or their high school did not offer AP or IB courses, they cannot test out of distribution requirements. These students remain bound to spend a large portion of their college careers battling these requirements while their peers may have more autonomy over their schedules to take three or four courses in one distribution of interest or enroll in just-for-fun classes. Ultimately, factors beyond control — such as financial means or previous high school credits — should not limit the academic quality of one’s college experience.

The additional requirements of a pre-professional track or dual-degree enrollment perpetuate this issue as well, for affected students must enroll in preset courses on top of distribution requirement classes. These students may lack the space in their schedules to double major, minor or simply pursue interests in greater depth, thus closing them off to experiences that yield skills and knowledge invaluable for post-graduation and professional lives. While Tufts claims to champion interdisciplinary thinking, the disproportionate impact of these requirements on pre-professional and SMFA students lies in contrast with the university’s values,challenging the benefit of a Tufts education.

Tufts must reevaluate the current distribution requirements to allow greater flexibility while still promoting a well-rounded education; it should change the requirements to require the completion of two courses in three of the five disciplines but only require one course in the other two. In this form, Tufts reduces the burden of the exhaustive requirements while still providing a well-rounded education that exposes students to all areas of study. With this adjusted system, students without AP credits and those with additional requirements could have a greater chance to explore disciplines in depth. By doing so, Tufts acts in line with its liberal arts values while giving students greater depth, equity and autonomy in their educational experience, vital for the improvement and evolution of the university’s pursuits.