The Forum | Costs

Intern Blog: Do Weak Standards Come at a High Price?

August 3, 2017

Research shows that the cost of tuition has been steadily increasing since 1991. The rate of increase accelerated greatly after the year 2000 and continued to increase through 2015. Nonetheless, even these sharp increases in tuition prices haven’t had a significant negative effect on college attendance. But what are students actually getting in return for higher tuition?

For prospective students and parents, the cost of tuition may be one of the most important aspects that factor into the college decision-making process. However, they should be equally concerned about curricular standards. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) takes a closer look at this issue each year through its What Will They Learn?™ project, which surveys over 1,100 universities and grades schools using general education requirements as a proxy for educational quality. The research benchmarks colleges and universities using a concise set of subject matter criteria: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. History or Government, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. Grades of “A” through “F” are awarded to institutions based on the inclusion of these course requirements in the general education curriculum of an individual school.

ACTA found a distressing paradox in the results of the 2017 survey: Among the schools receiving an “F,” a grade given to colleges that do not require students to take any of the seven core subjects, the average tuition was over 43.2% higher than at schools receiving an “A”—those that include almost all seven core subjects in their general education program.

The price of tuition is no guarantee of a solid core.

According to data collected by the College Board, “in 2016-17, the estimated average net tuition and fee price paid by full-time in-state students at public four-year institutions is $3,770—$860 higher than the net price a decade earlier and $1,550 higher than the 2009-10 low of $2,220.” These days, the median “real tuition” for in-state tuition is $8,778, while out-of-state average is about $23,890, and the average tuition for private four-year colleges is $32,410. But of course, at some universities tuition is far pricier. American Enterprise Institute (AEI) education data analyst Preston Cooper examined state tuition levels relative to the national median to parse out in-state tuition levels adjusted to include the cost of living in each state, as produced by the Regional Price Parity Index.

Comparisons between What Will They Learn? data and the real cost of in-state tuition calculated by AEI show a few schools to be of exceptionally good value in regards to excellent general education programs. The following schools are unique in that they have maintained rigorous general education programs yet still remain affordable to in-state students.

California: $779 below national median

California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo: $9,001

Georgia: $1,206 below national median

Georgia Southern University: $6,273

University of Georgia: $11,622

Oklahoma: $1,358 below national median

University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma: $6,270

These are excellent schools that offer almost all of the seven core subjects that the What Will They Learn? report considers essential to a well-rounded education. While some of the “A” public schools cost more than the national median, they offer a more well-rounded general education curriculum than their public and even private counterparts.

In order for students to be successful post-graduation and leave school with refined analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills, colleges and universities need to maintain rigorous core curricula. Prospective college students can take their education and future into their own hands by understanding not only the price, but the breadth of the education they’ll receive as they weigh a wide range of college options.

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the third in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Jessika is a rising senior at Loyola University Chicago where she is pursuing a double major in political science and international relations.


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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