Press Releases | General Education

ACTA Launches 12th Edition of Core Curriculum Report

September 28, 2020 by ACTA

Washington, DC – The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has released the 12th edition of its signature publication What Will They Learn? 2020–2021.

Unlike popular rankings systems, What Will They Learn?® assesses the core academic requirements at 1,127 four-year institutions that together enroll more than eight million undergraduate students. Grades are assigned based on whether colleges and universities require all students to take courses in seven priority subject areas as part of their general education programs. These subjects, identified as critically important to a twenty-first century college education by ACTA’s Council of Scholars, include: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science.

This year, only 23 institutions earn an “A” for requiring students to take courses in at least six of the seven core subject areas. A disappointing 135 schools fail. While most universities require students to take courses in composition and the natural sciences, curricular gaps are common in every other subject:

  • 82% do not require students to take a foundational course in U.S. government or history.
  • 42% do not require students to take a college-level mathematics course.
  • 68% do not require students to study literature.
  • 88% do not require intermediate-level foreign language courses.
  • 97% do not require a course in economics.

ACTA has long warned that the erosion of academic standards is leaving graduates unprepared for informed citizenship and for the demands of a complex and ever-evolving job market. As the public continues to lose faith in institutions of higher education, and with student loan debt continuing to skyrocket, the return on investment of a baccalaureate degree is under more scrutiny that ever.

Recent studies demonstrate that in the long run, liberal arts colleges bring a higher return on investment than most other four-year colleges. This is because a liberal arts-oriented core curriculum, focused on courses in the traditional arts and sciences, is the best way for students to develop the capacity for critical analysis, oral and written communication skills, and intercultural fluency that employers increasingly demand.

“The pandemic is upending higher education and forcing families to pay more attention to the value proposition of a collegiate education,” said ACTA President Michael Poliakoff. “Students must be educated to think critically and be prepared to navigate an uncertain career path. The schools that score well in What Will They Learn? graduate expert learners who are prepared for their first job and ready to confront the new challenges they will face in their fifth or tenth position. The ever-adaptable skill set provided by a liberal education equips graduates to thrive in a multitude of different fields and roles.”, a college-choice tool that accompanies the report, includes additional data for each school in the study, including student-to-faculty ratios, student loan default rates, graduation rates, campus climate indicators, and cost of attendance.

MEDIA CONTACT: Connor Murnane
PHONE: (202) 798-5450


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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