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Too Many of America’s Elite Colleges Offer Empty Promises, Study Shows

January 27, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The American Council of Trustees and Alumni today released a report that finds the country’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges fail to live up to their reputations in several crucial areas of academic quality and campus management.  Many have failed to restrain administrative bloat and high spending, few provide a solid foundation of core courses, and most severely restrict free speech on campus.  And all the while, Great Recession notwithstanding, the sticker price of tuition has continued to climb sharply upward.

The report, Education or Reputation?: A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges,  examined 29 institutions—nationally ranked as the top liberal arts institutions in the nation—in areas including educational quality, tuition trends, spending patterns, endowment and speech codes.

Among the findings:

  • Despite the fact that the average endowment of these schools is almost $1 billion, elite colleges raised tuition and fees 6.2% to 17.1% above inflation over the last few years, a time when many families were cutting back on expenses.
  • Eleven of these institutions paid their presidents base salaries of $400,000 or more to run colleges that typically have fewer than 2,000 students. These presidents are paid as well as—or better than—the leader of the free world, President Barack Obama.
  • Not a single institution except for the military academies requires a foundational, college-level course in American history or government. Only two require an economics course; only five require a literature course.
  • Students who graduate with debt start their lives with an average debt between $12,749 and $26,567.
  • Instead of cutting costs to lower tuition and help students graduate without crippling debt, half of the institutions allowed administrative spending to grow faster than instructional spending.
  • All 29 institutions have speech code policies leaving students with less freedom than they would have in a grocery store or public park.

“The sense of entitlement coming from the administrations of the top liberal arts colleges in the country is astounding,” said Anne D. Neal, ACTA president. “For the price they’re charging, institutions should—at the very least—provide a solid foundation and the opportunity for intellectual growth that comes from the free and vigorous exchange of ideas. Instead, our report finds that too many of our elite liberal arts schools are living off their reputation and offering little more than empty promises.”

How disheartening that students can graduate from some of America’s most prestigious institutions without taking a course as essential as American history, economics or literature,” said Michael Poliakoff, ACTA vice president of policy. “Students and their parents are often paying a quarter million dollars for an education that ill prepares them for the challenges of career, community, and citizenship.  These well-funded institutions could do so much better for the students who attend them.”

The report also offers concrete recommendations, including combating grade inflation, implementing a foundational core curriculum that employers and the American people prefer, and utilizing buildings more effectively to cut costs.

Education or Reputation? is the first of two reports examining the top colleges in the country. A second report on the top public universities will be released this year.


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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