For the most part, at least from what I remember, the first two years or so of college cover a broad range of "core classes", or required curriculum needed to advance in your education.
Though the practice may be different now, when I was in college as an undergrad, I was able to skip many of the classes I was advised to take in my first 2 years by speaking to my advisor and various department staff, who allowed me to just take exams from the classes, and if I got a high enough score, take the exam for the class for which it was a prerequisite, repeating until I reached an exam I on which I couldn’t do well. I wasn’t given credit for these “place out of” classes, just allowed to use them to satisfy the prerequisites for more challenging classes.
When I was ready to graduate, I had too few total credit hours (most undergraduate degrees require about 120 total semester hours), but was allowed to take CLEP exams
for classes I either hadn’t had any engagement, or ones I placed out of. This allowed me to spend a few hundred dollars where otherwise I would have had to spend more on tuition, books, living expenses, lost wages for work I wouldn’t have had time to do, and worse, been bored silly and likely gotten into various sorts of trouble.
Schools and departments vary in how many hours you can CLEP, and how well you must do on the test to get credit, but I you’re able to do well on them, they can save you a lot of time and money.
I have been told by my brother, whom graduated from college, that this is necessary in order to not only refresh your memory of the subjects (if it has been some time between graduating high school and entering college), but also to serve as a way to decide which subject you wish to pursue further down the line. I disagreed, saying that although the classes in elementary through high school were watered-down and primarily for teaching and building upon basics, they still give a good idea of what kind of subjects you may wish to pursue.
I have a 3rd take on the purpose of core classes.
My experience, and that of many people I met in college, is that actually taking classes toward a specific degree and specialization served in large part to teach us that we didn’t want to go into a given academic or professional field. A lot of this was learned socially, getting to know young faculty who were doing what I planned, especially young ones who regretted of had mixed feeling about their choices, I think saved me from what would have been some brief and unhappy careers in things I though I wanted to do. I arrived at the degree I eventually finished – a BS in Math – largely through a process of elimination.
With that being said, my question is this: What is the actual purpose for structuring core classes this way, and wouldn't it make more sense to cut the classes that have nothing to do with your major or minor in favor of just focusing on what you *need*?
I think the usual – and correct – answer is to give you more broad knowledge and experience than you’d get from only specialized studies. Some of this more broad experience can prove unexpectedly valuable in later professional or academic life, which often involve unexpected challenges and disciplines. Perhaps more importantly, it can give you a richer personal life – knowing a little about a lot of subjects can be fun, and liberating.
Another reason schools require their graduates to be “well rounded” is there are more purposes to schools than to provide training that directly benefits the individual – the school also wants its graduates to enhance its reputation and prestige. There’s not much difference, technically, between a 100-level class at an expensive, prestigious school, and on at an inexpensive, obscure one, but there is a difference between the value of the degree from either. If a school graduates too many people who aren’t very good at impressing people with how smart they are, the school’s prestige diminishes. I recall some stories of graduates who pursued lawsuits against their schools for “diluting” the value of their degrees by having granting degrees to too many unimpressive people. This can even be an issue for low-prestige schools – if too many of their graduates are blatantly ill-educated, they can even lose not only reputation but accreditation, and the prospect of even their best graduates.