The Forum | General Education

Choosing the Right College

April 28, 2020 by Nathaniel Urban

College-decision day is here. Whether online or in-person, millions of freshmen will start their first day of college in the fall. While their chosen institution’s core curriculum might be the last thing on students’ minds in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a poorly constructed general education program can have a serious and far-reaching negative impact on academic performance and future career success.

A structured general education program makes up approximately one-third of a four-year undergraduate program, but new students may not know what courses to take. The What Will They Learn?® report, an annual assessment of the core curricula at over 1,100 colleges and universities, recommends that all undergraduate students take a minimum of one semester in Composition, Literature, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science, as well as three consecutive semesters of a modern foreign language or two semesters of an ancient language.

A Brief History of General Education

Following the end of the American Revolution, higher education upheld a shared commitment to civic mindedness. Faculty members mandated the study of Latin, Greek, and classical literature as a means of cultivating civic virtue. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, new colleges and universities emerged and opinions on general education changed. Agricultural colleges focused on practical farming techniques, normal schools administered teaching certificates, and major state universities trained students in business, engineering, and medicine.

In 1945, the Harvard Red Book asserted that general education “was necessary for the growth of democracy, should emphasize the humanities on the basis of the liberal arts, and consist of courses taken by all undergraduate students.” However, with the proliferation of new, nontraditional institutions of higher education, the liberal arts were increasingly pushed out of general education programs.

Why are the Liberal Arts Important?

Students who have a strong general education in the liberal arts go on to become lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and CEOs; and studies show that liberal arts courses develop the capacity for critical analysis, oral and written communication skills, and intercultural fluency that employers increasingly demand.

The liberal arts also represent the psyche (from the Greek, meaning “soul, inner life-force”) of higher education and they preserve mankind’s greatest achievements in art, literature, music, philosophy, history, languages, rhetoric, mathematics, and science.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has identified 23 schools that are committed to the serious study of the liberal arts. The liberal arts-oriented general education programs offered by these institutions ensure that students will gain an enriching education that they will value for the rest of their lives.  

ACTA’s “A” Schools

An “A” school requires its students to take six of the seven core subjects as recommended by ACTA’s Council of Scholars. The list of 23 “A” schools includes several prestigious institutions, such as Baylor University, Christopher Newport University, Pepperdine University, the University of Dallas, and the University of Georgia.

Baylor University

Baylor requires all students to complete a series of courses on U.S. government or history, Western theology, American literature, fine arts, and natural science. Students are also required to study at least one foreign language and can choose from Arabic, Aramaic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, or Swahili.

Christopher Newport University

Christopher Newport University (CNU) is the only public university in the country to require all seven of ACTA’s core subjects. They also require computer science, fine arts, and Western Civilization. CNU’s general education program ensures that students graduate with a comprehensive set of skills that are highly desired by employers, including the capacity for critical analysis and oral and written communication.

Pepperdine University

Pepperdine University is one of three “A” schools in California, along with Thomas Aquinas College and the University of Saint Katherine. The general education program consists of courses in U.S. government or history, theology, English composition, fine arts, natural science, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, Western Civilization, psychology, sociology, and economics. The foreign language requirement allows students to choose from Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.

University of Dallas

The University of Dallas is another “A” school that is dedicated to classical liberal education. The university’s core consists of a specific set of courses focused on philosophy, English literature, theology, mathematics, fine arts, U.S. government or history, Western Civilization, economics, and classical and modern languages.

University of Georgia

The University of Georgia is the largest “A” school with almost 30,000 undergraduate students. The general education program requires all students to complete courses in mathematics, natural science, world cultures, humanities, U.S. government or history, and English composition and literature. The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia requires all students to demonstrate competency in U.S. government or history.


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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