Press Releases | General Education

Academic Standards Weak According to Annual College Survey

ACTA’s Survey of General Education Requirements Shows Need for Improvement
October 17, 2017 by ACTA

WASHINGTON, DC—The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released today its ninth annual survey of college general education curricula, What Will They Learn?, spotlighting the urgent need for colleges and universities to strengthen their academic standards. Experts maintain that if the United States is going to maintain economic progress and an engaged citizenry, then higher education must address widespread issues in curricular quality.

What Will They Learn?™ surveys over 1,100 public and private colleges and universities across the country to determine the rigor of each school’s general education program. Its ratings are based on whether an institution requires seven core subjects: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. Grades are awarded on an “A” through “F” scale. For the ninth year in a row, more than 66% of the colleges surveyed require three or fewer core subjects, meaning they score a “C” or below. Colleges that require six of the seven subjects receive an “A” for their curricula; they total only 24 colleges across the country.

According to data compiled by What Will They Learn?™ researchers, the majority of colleges require students to study composition, math, and science. However, only 17.6% of colleges require students to take a course in American government or history. Even worse, only 12% of institutions require students to study three semesters of a foreign language, and a scant 3.1% require students to take a course in economics. “With so much public concern for how our universities prepare students for today’s economy and electorate, it is remarkable how many institutions are failing to require the foundational content that equips future graduates with the skills they need for career readiness and engaged citizenship,” said Eric Bledsoe, ACTA’s Vice President of Curricular Improvement.

Without a structured curriculum, many students, especially first-generation students, are left to chart the course of their education without the benefit of a thoughtful framework of study. Many students flounder as they negotiate hundreds, if not thousands of random courses among the distributional choices that are often allowed to replace a core curriculum. When colleges leave crucial curricular choices largely, or in some cases, entirely to students, they neglect educational responsibility. And all the while, students face steep and ever-rising tuition for a degree that is not properly designed to deliver the knowledge they need to succeed after graduation.

The weakness in general education requirements may also bode ill for our civic processes. Media outlets continue to draw attention to high-profile disinvitations of speakers and violent campus disruptions. Surveys show widespread ignorance on campus of how our institutions of government work, and document college students’ growing disregard for the core freedoms of speech and press.

In partnership with Heterodox Academy and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), ACTA has included more metrics of academic freedom to help students, parents, and guidance counselors assess colleges on the basis of their demonstrated commitment to the freedoms of thought and speech—the cornerstones of liberal learning.

“Knowledge is power, but it’s difficult to discern a college’s commitment to academic freedom or a liberal education based on brochures from the admissions office,” said ACTA President Michael Poliakoff. “This guide makes it easier to see which colleges do the most to prepare students for life beyond college by fostering intellectual discourse and providing a firm academic foundation.”

To see which subjects your school requires, visit on your computer or mobile device.


CONTACT: Christine Ravold,


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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