Press Releases | General Education

Survey: Weak Course Requirements the Norm at Most Liberal Arts Programs Nationwide

What Will They Learn? survey finds two-thirds of U.S. colleges get low marks for core requirements, leaving students poorly-prepared for career
September 29, 2016

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) today released the 8th edition of its signature What Will They Learn? report, which found that the majority of colleges have inadequate core curricula. Of the 1,100 colleges and universities surveyed, two-thirds earn a “C” or lower for their general education requirements, leaving large numbers of graduates with significant gaps in their knowledge and ill-prepared for their careers.

The What Will They Learn?TM project evaluates the strength of core curricula at every major undergraduate college and university in the U.S. based on the requirement of seven key subjects: Composition, Literature, Intermediate-level Foreign Language, U.S. History or Government, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. Schools receive a grade on an “A” through “F” scale, with only 2% of colleges earning an “A” by requiring six or more of those core subjects.

Even as employers increasingly look for candidates with qualities that come from a rigorous liberal arts education, most colleges allow students to graduate without completing these core requirements. The largest share, fully 32% of the 1,110 surveyed institutions, earned a “C,” requiring only three of the seven core subjects.

A large majority of institutions (82%) do not require their students to take a course in U.S. history or government. Only 13% require an intermediate-level foreign language. At a time of continuing economic disruption and market uncertainty, a mere 3% of colleges and universities require students to take even one course in economics.

“The erosion of general education requirements puts students at a competitive disadvantage they can ill afford in today’s rapidly changing labor market and knowledge economy,” said Dr. Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Nor does this broken curriculum prepare graduates to be informed, engaged citizens.”

“Employers—and our nation—need graduates who have a solid grounding in the liberal arts, and this research shows definitively that too many colleges have turned their backs on general education, even as their tuition rates are at an all-time high. Charging such high tuition rates without preparing students for career, community, and citizenship is simply unacceptable.”

With no end in sight to rising tuition and student debt levels, ACTA’s findings contribute to the ongoing national debate about the cost and value of a college degree for students incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student loan liability.

Surveys show a sharp disparity between the views of higher education leaders and employers on how effectively undergraduate education is preparing students for the workforce. A Gallup survey found that nearly 100% of provosts said they felt their institutions were either “very effective” or “somewhat effective” at preparing students for the workforce. But early this year, a separate survey of employers showed that over 70% found college graduates were not well-prepared in skills such as “written communication,” “working with numbers/statistics,” “critical/analytical thinking,” and second-language proficiency.

To help improve students’ readiness for career and citizenship, ACTA is urging colleges and universities to adopt strong, liberal arts-based core curricula with a focus on essential subjects. This year, the organization also reached out to thousands of college counselors to share its findings and equip students with better information on the quality of education offered by each of the colleges they are considering.


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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