Press Releases | General Education

Best in the West: Private Colleges Out-Perform Publics in Annual Survey

General Education Requirements Suggest Divergent Priorities Between Public and Private Higher Education Institutions
November 14, 2017 by ACTA

WASHINGTON, DC—There is a sharp disparity in the overall academic rigor of public and private universities in western states, according to the latest data from What Will They Learn?™, an annual curricular survey compiled by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

This is the ninth consecutive year ACTA has tracked general education requirements. What Will They Learn?™ evaluates the strength of college general education programs, an important proxy for academic quality. Grades are awarded on an “A” through “F” scale according to the inclusion of seven key subjects: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science.

Colleges earn an “A” by requiring six or more of these core subjects; there are only 24 institutions in the country that have achieved this rating and seven are in the West. Out of those seven, only two―California Polytechnic State University–San Luis Obispo and the United States Air Force Academy―are public institutions. The remaining five private institutions that earn an “A” are Pepperdine University, Thomas Aquinas College, Saint Catherine University, Colorado Christian University, and St. John’s College–Santa Fe.

Overall, 175 western schools were evaluated in the report. Of these, 73 institutions are private schools and 102 are public. Of the private schools, 17.8% require intermediate-level foreign language study of every student compared to only 5.9% of public schools. Civic education requirements show an even wider gap in priorities. Of the public institutions, 31.4% require a course in U.S. government or history compared to only 2.1% of private institutions in the west.

“Nowhere else in the country do we see such a difference in educational priorities than we do between private and public colleges and universities in the western states. These higher educational institutions must reaffirm their commitment and responsibility to prepare their students for career success and informed citizenship,” said ACTA President Michael Poliakoff.

Within California’s public systems, sharp disparities emerge. The California State System boasts much stronger civic education requirements, with 21 out of 22 (95%) colleges requiring U.S. history, while only one of the 14 schools in the University of California System (UC) has this requirement. On the whole, the California State system delivers a remarkably robust undergraduate education at a competitive price. Its schools on average require four of the subjects What Will They Learn? considers imperative for general education, with an average out-of-state tuition of $18,045.

Without curricular changes, the west will continue to lag behind other regions in the United States. But it wouldn’t be too difficult to right the ship. A general education program that meets all the necessary requirements to earn an “A” from What Will They Learn? could be completed in the first year of college.

“Thirty credits equates to two semesters’ study in college,” says Eric Bledsoe, ACTA’s vice president for curricular improvement and academic outreach. “That leaves plenty of space for students to take electives and fulfill major requirements, while still equipping them with a broad knowledge base necessary for intellectual health and lifelong learning.”

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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