Press Releases | General Education

Federal Commission on Higher Education Forgets Its Mission

ACTA Calls on Commission to Address What College Students Are Not Learning
July 19, 2006

WASHINGTON, DC—In the words of the Secretary of Education, the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education is tasked with “ensuring that America’s system of higher education remains the finest in the world.” According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the second draft of the Commission’s report on American colleges and universities—issued earlier this week—completely betrays this mandate.

“The only think the Commission’s latest draft ensures is that the academic establishment will not squeal too loudly,” ACTA president Anne D. Neal said. “Unless the Commission regains a focus on what institutions are teaching and why it matters, it will have done the Secretary and the American people a disservice.”

In its first draft, issued on June 26, the Commission noted with alarm the “lack of coherence and lax standards that often characterize the undergraduate curriculum.” It pointed out the incredible number of universities that no longer require their students to take courses in American history, Western civilization, math, science, or even writing—problems ACTA documented in its acclaimed 2004 report The Hollow Core.

But the academic establishment responded with horror to the first draft. New York University president John Sexton called it “a disaster,” Muhlenberg College president Peyton Helm labeled it “an astounding collection of some of the worst ideas for higher education,” and the American Association of University Professors said it was “harshly critical of higher education.”

In response, the Commission has removed curricular issues from its latest draft. ACTA believes, however, that if the Commission wishes to produce a report that will—in its own words—ensure that “our country gets what it needs from our higher education system,” it must underscore the nature and importance of general education in a free society.

“In a time of global competition and conflict, transparency and assessments don’t matter if the product itself is not worthy,” Neal noted. “Access and completion rates are simply irrelevant if the education received is incoherent and fails to guarantee the common ground of training and outlook on which our society depends.”

“Higher education’s failure to address this bigger and broader public purpose is leaving our next generation of leaders unable to think deeply, or collectively, about permanent values or the future of civilization itself,” she continued. “Instead of contributing to this failure, the Commission must boldly outline the public need for the academy to provide a core of common knowledge and common experience—a curriculum that prepares students for informed citizenship, diverse careers, and lifelong learning in a democratic society.”

“The status quo in higher education is unacceptable,” Neal concluded. “Colleges and universities receive millions in federal funds even as they are failing to graduate educated citizens. To fix this, the Commission must urgently call for a coherent core curriculum, a campus culture that fosters open debate, and an end to the existing federal requirements that undermine those standards.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a national education nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic quality, and accountability. ACTA boasts a nationwide network of alumni and trustees and has issued numerous reports on higher education including How Many Ward Churchills?, Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, The Hollow Core, and Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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