Press Releases | Core Curriculum

Study Shows U.S. Colleges Don’t Require Core Subjects

Students Graduate without Math, Science, Other Fundamentals
April 18, 2004

WASHINGTON, DC— College requirements have so many loopholes, students can graduate without taking core subjects such as math, science, composition, literature, economics, American history or government, a new study finds. In spite of the fact that most colleges endorse the importance of general education—a set of foundational courses required of all students—the study finds that colleges have abandoned core requirements in favor of a loose set of “distribution” requirements. As a result, the study concludes, colleges are offering “little more than a ‘hollow core.’”

The report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, entitled The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum, surveys 50 colleges and universities, including all of the Big Eight and Big Ten universities, the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters colleges, and an additional grouping of 13 colleges to provide institutional and geographical breadth.

Each school was given a grade from A to F, depending on the number of core subjects it required. Nearly half of the colleges (48 percent) received D or F grades including such well-known schools as Colgate, Cornell, Penn State, Vassar, and the University of Wisconsin. See Colleges Ranked by Grade, Table 7, attached.

The seven subjects examined are: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or American History, Economics, Mathematics and Natural or Physical Science. Of the seven, economics fared the worst. Not one of the surveyed colleges or universities requires a general course in economics. Only 12 percent mandate a general course in literature, while a mere 14 percent of the colleges compel their students to study American government or history.

The study also finds that:

— 48 percent of the surveyed institutions (24 of 50) require two or fewer core subjects out of the seven selected for the analysis.

— 24 percent of the colleges received Fs for requiring none or just one of the core courses.

— None of the colleges requires all seven subjects. Only one school—Baylor University, in Waco, Texas—earned an A for requiring six courses.

“This study demonstrates that the colleges have abdicated their responsibility to direct their students—especially freshmen and sophomores—to the most important subjects,” said Barry Latzer, principal author of the study. “Today’s college student is free to roam at large through the course lists and enroll in the most fashionable or convenient classes. The result is that thousands of students are graduating with only a thin and patchy education, with enormous gaps of knowledge in fields such as history, economics and literature.”

Most colleges require students to take courses in several subjects other than their major—the “distribution requirements.” Colleges typically mandate from one to three courses in each of five or six distribution areas: physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences, writing skills, math skills, and multicultural studies. However, the distribution system allows students to pick and choose among dozens, sometimes hundreds, of courses. Many of the courses are too narrow or unsuitable for general education, such as Ghosts, Demons and Monsters (Dartmouth College), or Writing Tibet, which meets Barnard’s literature requirement. “Whatever the merits of these courses,” said Latzer, “they certainly should not be a student’s first, much less his only, course in literature.”

The Report calls on colleges and universities to reform their general education curriculums. “The prevalent smorgasbord approach, allowing students to select almost any combination of courses, results in a patchwork that reflects youthful interests, but not lifelong educational needs,” says the study. “This should serve as a wake-up call for the higher education establishment.”


Colleges Ranked by Grade (Table 7) from The Hollow Core
by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni

A (6 or 7 Core Courses) (1/50 = 2%)
Baylor University (6)

B (4 or 5 Core Courses) (14/50 = 28%)
Brooklyn College (CUNY) (5)
Duke University (4)
University of Florida–Gainesville (4)
Hunter College (CUNY) (5)
University of Kansas–Lawrence (5)
Mary Washington College (4)
University of Missouri–Columbia (4)
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (4)
Oklahoma State University–Stillwater (5)
Purdue University–West Lafayette (4)
University of Texas–Austin (5)
Texas A & M University–College Station (5)
Texas Tech University–Lubbock (5)
Wellesley College (4)

C (3 Core Courses) (11/50 = 22%)
Barnard College
Columbia University
Dartmouth College
Denison University
University of Iowa–Iowa City
Kansas State University–Manhattan
University of Minnesota–Twin Cities
Ohio State University–Columbus
University of Oklahoma–Norman
College of William & Mary
University of Wyoming

D (2 Core Courses) (12/50 = 24%)
Bryn Mawr College
University of Colorado–Boulder
Carleton College
Harvard University
University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign
Indiana University–Bloomington
University of Massachusetts–Amherst
University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
Michigan State University–East Lansing
University of Pennsylvania
Princeton University
Yale University

F (1 or 0 Core Courses) (12/50 = 24%)
University of California–Berkeley (1)
Brown University (0)
Colgate University (1)
Cornell University (1)
Iowa State University–Ames (1)
Mount Holyoke College (1)
University of Nebraska–Lincoln (1)
Northwestern University (1)
Pennsylvania State University–University Park (1)
Smith College (1)
Vassar College (0)
University of Wisconsin–Madison (1)


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