Press Releases | General Education

California Dreaming: Liberal Arts Requirements Just an Illusion at Most Colleges in the Golden State

Survey finds that more than half of California colleges get low marks for their academic standards
November 17, 2016 by ACTA

WASHINGTON, DC—California colleges and universities are leaving large numbers of graduates with significant gaps in their knowledge and ill-prepared for careers, according to the latest edition of What Will They Learn? from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). The survey found that of the 71 major California general education programs surveyed more than half earned a “C” or lower for allowing students to graduate without a deep immersion in the liberal arts and sciences.

Now in its 8th edition, What Will They Learn? evaluates the strength of core curricula at more than 1,100 colleges and universities across the country. Schools receive a grade on an “A” through “F” scale based on the requirement of seven key subjects: Composition, Literature, Intermediate-level Foreign Language, U.S. History or Government, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • Over 50% of California schools do not require their students to take a course in American history or government.
  • While most institutions require their students to take an English composition course, fewer than 15 require students to study literature.
  • Only four California schools require economics.
  • California is a heavily diverse and bilingual state, but only fourteen of the schools surveyed require foreign-language study at the intermediate level.

Five schools—including the University of California system’s flagship, UC–Berkeley—require one core subject and received a grade of “F.” Instead of taking a course in literature, students at the University of California—Los Angeles students can satisfy a nebulous requirement in Arts and Humanities by taking courses such as  “Aliens, Psychics, and Ghosts” offered by the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance,

“From its fine public universities to its world-class science and engineering programs, California does have a rich history of expanding access to higher education,” said Dr. Michael B. Poliakoff. “Unfortunately, it has also been ground zero for the dismantling of high academic standards and core requirements. These findings are a wake-up call for colleges and universities, so many of whom are falling short on their promise of equipping students for career and citizenship.”

Despite the dismal state of general education on California campuses, the report also highlights some bright spots in the Golden State: While only 25 schools in the whole country earn an “A” by requiring six or more of the core subjects, California boasts four “A” schools: California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo, Pepperdine University, Saint Katherine College, and Thomas Aquinas College.


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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