ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

What Will They Learn? 2017-18 Executive Summary

October 2017


What Will They Learn?™ evaluates every four-year public university with a stated liberal arts mission as well as hundreds of private colleges and universities selected on the basis of size, mission, and regional representation. All schools in the What Will Will They Learn™ study are regionally-accredited, nonprofit institutions. Combined, the over 1,100 institutions in the What Will They Learn?™ study enroll over 7.5 million students, more than two-thirds of all students enrolled in four-year liberal arts schools nationwide.

Overall, the results are troubling. The grade tally tells the story:

     A 24 (2.2%)

     B 350 (31.4%)

     C 346 (31.0%)

     D 269 (24.0%)

     F 127 (11.5%)

Less than half of the schools studied require:

     Literature – 34.2%

     Foreign Language – 12.0%

     U.S. Government or History – 17.6%

     Economics – 3.1%

Although the style and content of general education programs vary greatly from institution to institution, the evaluation process has yielded several general observations:

What a college promises often isn't what it practices.

On the whole, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum. In their course catalogs and mission statements, colleges frequently exalt the virtues of a “well-rounded” liberal arts education. The reality, however, is that 66.5% of the schools surveyed require three or fewer of the seven core subjects. Their diffuse curricula poorly represent critical subjects like American history, economics, and foreign languages.

Sometimes the contradiction between soaring rhetoric and disappointing reality is sharp indeed. Hamilton College states that it “fosters” “intellectual curiosity and flexibility,” “analytic discernment,” “aesthetic discernment,” “disciplinary practice,” “creativity,” “communication and expression,” “understanding cultural diversity,” and “ethical, informed, and engaged citizenship.” But further reading reveals the truth: “Most colleges have a core curriculum or distribution requirements; Hamilton does not.”1 The college fails to require any of the seven core subjects enumerated in What Will They Learn?™.

Money is no guarantee of a good core.

This report makes clear that cost is a poor indicator of the strength of a school’s core curriculum. Students attending U.S. News’s top national universities and liberal arts colleges are typically paying well over $40,000 each year in tuition and fees, but some of these schools require none of the seven core subjects. In sharp contrast, public universities—where the median in-state tuition and fees are a fraction of that amount—require an average of over three. An encouraging finding is that public colleges and universities generally do a better job maintaining requirements in science and English composition than do private institutions, and historically black colleges and universities are noteworthy for their strong requirements. And, as noted above, our military service academies also have outstanding, rigorous requirements. One of the most expensive institutions studied, Amherst College, charges $52,476 in tuition and fees but does not require a single one of our seven core subjects. The average tuition and fees at the 24 “A” schools that charge tuition is $23,811, significantly less than most of the private universities in the study. A distressing paradox is that among the schools receiving an “F” from What Will They Learn?™, the average tuition is more than 44.6% higher than at schools receiving an “A.”

College administrators should note that it doesn’t necessarily take more money to produce a terrific education. In fact, colleges and universities can save a hefty part of their instructional budget simply by reducing the number of course options that now fulfill general education requirements and concentrating efforts on providing first-rate instruction in a carefully chosen set of core offerings.

Reputation isn’t everything.

Many college ratings attach great significance to a school’s reputation. This circular logic ensures that the schools at the top of the rankings are those that everyone already “knows” are the best. Looking objectively at the facts, however, yields surprises.

The list of schools that received “A” grades includes some schools like Pepperdine and Baylor, renowned for their commitment to the liberal arts and academic excellence, but there are also some that deserve to be better known, such as Christopher Newport University, Colorado Christian University, Kennesaw State University, the United States Coast Guard Academy, Bluefield College, and Regent University. The “F” list includes such august names as the University of California–Berkeley, Bowdoin, Hamilton, and Vassar. That some of the best-known colleges earn poor marks for general education doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t do other things well. But what is clear is that many highly regarded universities enroll some of our nation’s top students and then give them nothing more than a “do-it-yourself ” curriculum. The famous Ivy League, for instance, is home to two “Bs,” four “Cs,” one “D,” and one “F.” These grades reflect significant curricular weaknesses. Yale does not require its students to take college-level math; Harvard accepts elementary-level study of a foreign language; and Brown has an “open curriculum,” meaning students may take whatever classes they wish, with no requirements at all.

Certainly, a student can get an excellent education at these schools if he or she chooses classes wisely. What our study reveals, however, is that instead of holding the outstanding students to a high standard, the “big names” are often letting students take obscure, esoteric, and sometimes lightweight classes in place of a rigorous, coherent liberal arts core.

Distribution requirements are requirements in name only.

While distribution requirements seem like an appealing idea on paper, in practice they usually allow students to graduate with only a thin and patchy education. Students may have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose, many of them highly specialized niche courses. Once distribution requirements become too loose, students almost inevitably graduate with an odd list of random, unconnected courses and, all too often, serious gaps in their basic skills and knowledge. For example:

  • DePaul University: “History of Games” fulfills the “Understanding the Past” requirement.
  • University of North Carolina–Wilmington: “The History of Surfing” fulfills the “Living in our Diverse Nation” requirement.
  • Rice University: “The World According to Pixar” fulfills the “First Year Writing Intensive Seminar” requirement.

Regents and trustees can make a difference.

In some states, legislatures have created strong requirements for  the study of U.S. government and history. For example, Texas state law requires that all public universities teach courses on American history and government; accordingly, every public institution in Texas receives credit for U.S. Government or History in What Will They Learn?™. So also Georgia: In accordance with legislation, all students at public institutions must demonstrate an understanding of U.S. and state history and constitutions. It is clear, however, that great vigilance is needed in upholding such state laws. A similar statute in California stipulates that all schools in the California State University system “require comprehensive study of American history and American government” as a condition of graduation.

Nonetheless, the University of California–Berkeley allows students to fulfill their “American History and American Institutions” requirement with high school coursework.

Regents and trustees have also taken the initiative to create comprehensive general education standards, as seen in states such as Tennessee, South Dakota, Georgia, Florida, and Nevada, where those requirements apply to all schools within a system or even a state. In Georgia, for example, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) has established statewide core curriculum guidelines. The result: The 20 institutions governed by the USG require an average of 4.3 of the seven subjects studied in What Will They Learn?™, well above the national average of 3. Similar results can be found at the universities under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Oklahoma State Regents, and the Nevada Board of Regents. An added benefit: System-wide general education requirements facilitate transfers between the two- and four-year schools, drastically increasing the chances that a college student will receive a comprehensive education and complete it within four years.

Effective, efficient core curricula improve educational quality while lowering costs of instruction. The basic general education core that every student needs can be delivered much more cost- effectively than the array of niche and boutique courses so often offered as “distribution requirements” in lieu of a well-defined core. Especially in these hard economic times, governing boards of public colleges and universities risk legislative intervention if they cannot maintain the curricular standards and efficiencies that the public deserves and increasingly demands.

College catalogs conceal much about educational quality.

Most of the research for this study was done by examining the information colleges and universities make available online, in much the same way a prospective student would. What we found was that students, parents, and policymakers trying to find out what schools require will often have a hard time of it. Some schools are clear and unambiguous about their requirements, but others hide them on back pages of the catalog. Some schools may have differing “core” curricula depending on students’ majors, the divisions in which they are enrolled, or even the campuses on which they attend class. Shockingly, some schools do not issue their updated course catalogs until well into the summer, long past the time when students should begin to think carefully about their academic schedules for the coming year. More problematic yet, many catalogs do a poor job of describing courses. Very often, course descriptions include phrases such as “topics may include,” followed by a broad list. The “may” means that nobody—not parents, not students—can really know what is going to be covered. It will vary from section to section, semester to semester, depending on what a given instructor wishes to teach. The class may require serious, college-level work . . . or it may not.

Finally, colleges must stop allowing exemption from crucial courses on the basis of college entrance examinations. The ACT and SAT exams measure college readiness: They were never intended to measure mastery of collegiate skills. Allowing exemption from a college-level writing course on the basis of these test scores, at times as low as a 500 SAT verbal score (Pfeiffer University), or a combined 1100 score on the verbal section and writing subject test (Millersville University), is a disservice to students.

American higher education needs to become serious about equipping students to be effective participants in global conversations and a global economy.

Nearly every college and university we studied has some sort of diversity requirement, with the expectation that students are expected to learn about people different from themselves. This is a commendable and excellent idea in our increasingly interconnected world. Surely, though, the best way to understand another culture is to know its language; students who can speak and read a foreign language competently are able to enter into another culture more deeply and can continue to do so throughout their lives. Yet less than 13% of the schools we studied require students to learn a foreign language at the intermediate level. Some allow elementary study of the kind typically required in high school to suffice; others have no requirement at all. Some allow classes in both American and foreign cultures taught in English. At Union College, for example, students can substitute foreign language study with “Explore Japanese Manga and Anime”; and at Western Illinois University, courses such as “Diversity of Dress” and “Music in World Cultures” stand in for foreign language proficiency. At Oberlin College, for example, there is no requirement for the study of U.S. Government or History, but students must fulfill a “Cultural Diversity” requirement which may be satisfied by such courses as “Sports Literature and Cultural Fantasy,” “Samba,” or “Girls’ Manga and Beyond.”2

American government and history are badly neglected in general education requirements.

Despite the boasts of college catalogs, few of their curricula actively prepare students to be informed and engaged citizens. This year’s survey showed that fewer than 18% of our colleges and universities require even a single foundational course in U.S. government or history. The grim results of this curricular frivolity are arguably apparent in the nationwide instances of campus unrest. When institutions of higher learning neglect to require the study of our nation’s most basic and cherished principles protected in the Constitution, they let ignorance supplant reasoned discourse. This year, the Brookings Institution demonstrated that 51% of college students agreed that it was acceptable to interrupt controversial campus speakers “by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker.” Even more disturbing, nearly 20% of college students thought it acceptable to use violence to stop the speaker.3

The American public continues to stress the importance of economics, but hardly any universities require its study.

Colleges and universities constantly profess that they seek to construct a curriculum that will address the particular needs of students in the 21st century. The Panetta Institute for Public Policy reported in 2016 that economic issues ranked as the highest issue of importance for college graduates when they considered presidential candidates.4 Yet despite the increasing importance of economics, just over 3% of the institutions studied require students to take a basic economics class.

Employers and the public stress the importance of STEM, but many colleges and universities are failing to live up to these standards.

The National Survey of America’s College Students found that 20% of college students completing four-year degrees could not reliably “calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.”5 This should be no surprise since only 58% of colleges and universities require students to take a college-level mathematics class. In 2015, the Committee for Economic Development reported that “quantitative and analytical skills/critical thinking” were among the top seven most desired skills in potential hires.6 Moreover, the National Federation of Independent Businesses reported that, in the spring of 2015, 47% of small businesses hiring for available positions said there were “few or no qualified applicants.”7 The skills gap in STEM fields will only continue to widen if significant numbers of colleges and universities continue to require mathematics courses below the college level or even no coursework at all.

There are some curious selections in the cafeteria line.

Many colleges and universities continue to stress the importance of students building foundational knowledge and skills, but allow those students to satisfy these requirements with an incoherent curriculum. This is commonly called a “cafeteria-style” curriculum. The following are a few of the more peculiar general education classes we found in our research:

  • Rosemont College: “Social Mediation & Dispute Resolution” fulfills the “Problem Solving and Critical Thinking” requirement (the same category for which college-level mathematics courses are also options).
  • Gettysburg College: “FYS-149 Atomic Lizards, Robots, Pocket Monsters and Cute Kitties: Japanese Pop Culture Goes Global” fulfills the “Cultural Diversity” requirement.
  • Stockton University: “Vampires: History of the Undead” fulfills the “Historical Consciousness” requirement.



  1. Hamilton College, “Open Curriculum,” Academics, 2017,
  2. Oberlin College, “Cultural Diversity Requirement,” Course Catalog, 2017,
  3. John Villasenor, “View Among College Students Regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey,” Brookings, September 18, 2017,
  4. Hart Research Associates, 2016 Survey of America’s College Students (Washington, DC: The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, 2016).
  5. W. Robert Connor and Cheryl Ching, “Can Learning Be Improved When Budgets Are in the Red?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 25, 2010,; see also Sheida White and Sally Dillow, Key Concepts and Features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), 1–7,
  6. Monica Herk, “The Skills Gap and the Seven Skill Sets that Employers Want: Building the Ideal New Hire,” Committee for Economic Development, June 11, 2015,
  7. William C. Dunkelberg and Holly Wade, Small Business Economic Trends (Nashville: National Federation of Independent Businesses, May 2015).