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Grading the Colleges

Top-Ranked Public Universities Ace Reputation But Fail Elsewhere
April 22, 2014
  • More than 30 of the top public institutions pay their president a salary that equals or exceeds that of the leader of the free world
  • Little more than half of students attain four-year degrees in four years
  • Not one requires even a basic course in economics

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The American Council of Trustees and Alumni today released a report that finds the country’s leading public institutions fail students and the American people in several key areas. Getting What You Pay For? examines 52 top-rated institutions to separate reputation from results.

The report finds that too many leading, publicly-funded institutions don’t provide students with a solid education at a reasonable price. Bloated administrative costs, shaky curricula, outsized athletic spending, and misplaced priorities have created a campus environment where too many students graduate ill-prepared, in record debt, and years later than they should—if they graduate at all.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Of the 52 publicly-funded institutions in the report, not a single one requires even a basic economics course. Just five require an American history or government course.
  • Little more than half (53.6%) of the students at these institutions graduate in four years—for a four-year degree!
  • Tuition and fee increases average 31% over five years, but vary tremendously:

    • The University of Washington increased in-state tuition and fees by more than 75% in five years, while the University of Maryland kept five-year growth under 1%.
    • Although they have the advantage of access to state funding, 21 of the top public institutions have tuition rates for out-of-state students that rival those of private institutions.
  • If the price of household items increased at the same rate as higher education over the last few decades, milk would cost $17.48 a gallon.
  • Many universities have dozens of majors that graduate fewer than 10 students a year. At 10 of the top universities, these low enrollment programs account for more than a third of all programs.
  • Faculty teaching assignments are light, often four or fewer courses per year, and many classroom buildings sit empty, especially on Fridays.
  • Graduates who borrowed money for college owed between $16,983 and $35,168 on average after graduation.
  • Public universities in Division 1 of the NCAA, including many in this report, spend three to six times as much on athletics per athlete than they spend on academics per student.
  • 31 of the institutions pay their president a salary that equals or exceeds that of the President of the United States.
  • Only 4 of the 52 institutions do not seriously imperil free speech on campus. Overbroad speech codes threaten a democratic society that relies on debate and multiple perspectives; yet many top-rated public institutions seem willfully to disregard the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution. 

“The American people are directing millions of dollars to these universities and the return on investment seems too often to be lower academic standards, wasteful spending, and plenty of student debt,” said Anne D. Neal, ACTA president. “It’s time for our colleges and universities to uphold their commitment to the people who finance them. Students and taxpayers deserve institutions that will resist bloat, embrace innovation, and provide a sterling education for America’s young people at an affordable cost.”

“It’s a tragedy that at so many of these top-tier public institutions students are graduating without a single course on American history, economics or college-level literature,” said Michael Poliakoff, ACTA vice president of policy. “It’s bad enough to continue to raise tuition prices every year, but to do so while failing to provide a thoughtfully-designed and thorough preparation for career and citizenship is unconscionable.”

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

Getting What You Pay For? is the companion report of Education or Reputation?, which examined the 25 top private institutions. “Education or Reputation” was released in January 2014.


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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