The Forum | General Education

The Most “Educated” Generation?

May 30, 2017

As this year’s graduation season kicks off, the Millennial Generation is on track to become the most highly credentialed cohort in American history. The Pew Research Center recently found that the number of employed Americans aged 25 to 29 possessing at least a bachelor’s degree has reached new heights; 40% of working 25 to 29 year olds are college-educated, compared to 32% of Gen Xers in 2000 and just 26% of Baby Boomers in 1985.

All well and good—but are students really receiving the education a college graduate should have? Distressing findings suggest that too many college graduates today may be “all hat and no cattle.” College credentials may be rising to an all-time high, but a large number of students—data show—are receiving surprisingly little intellectual substance and rigor along the way. In fact, most institutions of higher learning fall well short of the standards needed to ensure their students receive a well-rounded liberal education in the core subjects that really matter.

The impressive graduation rates belie a serious crisis in the liberal arts and a knowledge deficit among an appreciable share of college graduates.

ACTA’s annual What Will They Learn? report, a comprehensive guide to general education requirements at more than 1,100 undergraduate programs, graded nearly two-thirds of institutions at “C” or below on its report card, meaning the institutions require three or fewer of the core subjects of Composition, Literature, Intermediate-level Foreign Language, U.S. History or Government, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science in their undergraduate curricula. Students often graduate without ever seriously engaging foundational elements of the liberal arts and sciences.

Not surprisingly, employers are taking note. More than 70% of employers consider college graduates deficient in the skills otherwise inculcated by the liberal arts—skills like “written communication,” “working with numbers/statistics,” and “critical/analytical thinking.” In one study, 45% of college students failed to show “any significant improvement in learning” over two years of college, and 36% failed to show any significant improvements over four years. It is no wonder that new college graduates are increasingly underemployed and unable to repay their loans.

Despite these grim findings, there are nonetheless many outstanding institutions that require thorough and intellectually-rigorous study of the liberal arts. The 25 institutions that earn a What Will They Learn? “A” are examples of schools, public and private, large and small, that provide the educational quality needed to form minds for the 21st century.

As parents and policymakers—and increasingly students themselves—wake up to the dangers of declining academic standards, we must hope that more will insist on change and support programs that prepare students for career and citizenship. Otherwise, all those diplomas run the danger of being little more than expensive window dressing for an education that lacks rigor at its core.  


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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