In March, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and NORC released the findings of a new poll that gives a sobering assessment of Americans’ attitude toward higher education. Focused primarily on the cost of college, the study revealed a stark decline—nearly 20%—since 2013 in Americans’ faith in the value of a four-year degree.

At first glance, the results are fairly shocking, as are the accompanying interviews with Americans who express regret at earning a college degree alongside a belief in the utilitarian nature of education. Fifty-six percent of respondents said going to college is “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” Meanwhile, those in favor of the four-year degree are only in favor so far as it provides one with “a better chance to get a good job and earn more income.” The study illustrates the all-too common confusion about how best to determine college value and displays the trend of viewing the four-year degree as a tool for economic advancement rather than preparation for a meaningful life.

The WSJ-NORC study suggests that people are losing faith in the value of college because of rising tuition paired with low return on investment after college. This indicates that many Americans understand college “value” in monetary terms. Take, for example, the experiences of Danielle Tobias and Paulo Eskitch, quoted at length by the Journal. Ms. Tobias graduated from a liberal arts school with a degree in equine studies and an immense $85,000 in debt, while Mr. Eskitch received a master’s degree in music. Though they pursued their passions in college, both Ms. Tobias and Mr. Eskitch express regret that they did not choose to study other fields (welding, for example) that may have been more financially viable.

Their stories reflect the concerns of many struggling postgraduates of all ages: that the skills they learned in college have not transferred well to the working world. These findings indicate that there is often a dangerous mismatch between the fields that young people think will fulfill them personally and the disciplines that are truly viable in today’s economic landscape. Further, they reveal the dark reality that many universities are all too happy to saddle their students with debt that the credentials they earned at these very institutions may never be able to help them pay back.

One look at average annual tuition brings these concerns into sharp focus. For the year of 2021–22, the average Ivy cost $60,122, and the most popular liberal arts schools cost $58,870 on average. And though students bear responsibility for selecting their schools and majors, the higher education industry has lost its way, in many instances operating too much like a business, eating up staggering tuition and exorbitant fees while offering unfocused curricula and failing to equip students with the basic skills and knowledge they will need to succeed.

Against this reality, how do students determine which institutions are committed to providing a high-quality education that is worth the price, one that nurtures students’ intellectual growth while also equipping them with practical skills? Unbeknownst to many, there are in fact a number of excellent schools that do all these things and more. Through its What Will They Learn?® (WWTL) project, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni helps students and families focus on what matters most when determining college value: what students will actually learn in the classroom.

What Will They Learn?® assesses over 1,100 colleges and universities nationwide on the strength of their core curricula. Schools are rated on an “A” through “F” scale based on how many of the following seven essential subject areas they require students to study: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Natural Science, and Mathematics. “A” schools are those that require six to seven of these subjects, while “B” schools require four to five subjects. Institutions that make careful effort to craft a rigorous general education program recognize the serious financial investments students are making. They are dedicated to shaping students into lifelong learners while also preparing them for successful careers.

Surprisingly, many schools that offer excellent core curricula often cost much less than typical four-year institutions. For the 2021–22 year, the public “A” and “B” schools, in-state students paid an average of $9,253, and out-of-state students paid an average of $21,051. Meanwhile, tuition at private “A” schools cost students an average of $33,034. Not only do many of these schools prioritize students’ future economic well-being by keeping costs low, but they also prioritize intellectual growth through their comprehensive core curricula, exposing students to diverse fields of study and fostering inquisitiveness and a love of learning.

Students who have studied a well-rounded core curriculum are prepared with critical, transferable skills that make them excellent job candidates in any field. A 2021 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that employers seek job candidates whose undergraduate education provided them with a broad base of skills. Further, one study found that over the course of 40 years, graduates from liberal arts schools accumulated over 25% more earnings in their profession than other types of degree holders, providing evidence that the fruits of a strong core curriculum are perennial. It is no surprise then that many of the best schools assessed by What Will They Learn?® view college as the beginning—not the end—of students’ intellectual formation and as the gateway to future success wherever life might take them.


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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