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 2019-2020 Executive Summary

September 2019


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 They Learn?® study are regionally accredited, nonprofit institutions. Combined, the over 1,100 institutions in the What Will They Learn?® study enroll nearly eight 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 22 (2%)

     B 350 (31%)

     C 335 (30%)

     D 279 (25%)

     F 137 (12%)

Less than half of the schools studied require:

     Literature – 32%

     Foreign Language – 12%

     U.S. Government or History – 18%

     Economics – 3%

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 68% of the schools surveyed require three or fewer of the seven core subjects. These diffuse curricula severely underrepresent critical subjects like American history, economics, and foreign languages. 

General education programs are often a poor reflection of a school’s mission. Middlebury College in Vermont states that it is “committed to educating students in the tradition of the liberal arts, which embodies a method of discourse as well as a group of disciplines.” And yet, Middlebury students can graduate without taking any WWTL college-level courses. Middlebury’s broad distribution categories fail to provide students with a substantive, “well-rounded” education. 

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 of maintaining requirements in science and English composition than do private institutions, and historically black colleges and universities are noteworthy for their strong requirements. Our military service academies also have outstanding, rigorous requirements. One of the most expensive institutions studied, Hamilton College, charges $54,620 in tuition and fees and does not require any of our seven core subjects. The average tuition and fees at the 22 “A” schools that charge tuition is $22,470, 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 approximately $35,080, which brings into question the value of their educational offerings. 

College administrators should note that it does not 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. According to ACTA’s publication The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum, “eliminating general education courses that are not central to any discipline and are therefore not requirements of any major would save an institution 10% of instructional costs per semester—or more, depending on the university.”1 Reducing the curriculum bloat can also reduce budget constraints. 

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 University and Baylor University, 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, Bluefield College, Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, and Regent University. The “F” list includes such august names as the University of California–Berkeley, Bowdoin College, Hamilton College, and Vassar College. That some of the best-known colleges earn poor marks for general education doesn’t 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 ” core 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 University does not require its students to take college-level math; Harvard University accepts elementary-level study of a foreign language; and Brown University has an “open curriculum,” meaning students may take whatever classes they wish, with no core curriculum 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 outstanding students to a high standard, the “big names” often let 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: 

• University of Connecticut: “Hip-Hop, Politics, and Youth Culture in America” fulfills the “Social Sciences” requirement. 

• University of North Carolina–Wilmington: “The History of Surfing” fulfills the “Living in Our Diverse Nation” requirement. 

• Williams College: “Soccer and History in Latin America: Making the Beautiful Game” fulfills the “History” requirement. 

Legislatures, 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 government and history; accordingly, every public institution in Texas receives credit for U.S. Government or History in What Will They Learn?®. So also Florida and Georgia: In accordance with legislation, all students at public institutions must demonstrate an understanding of U.S and state history and constitutions. 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. 

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 Florida, for example, the Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida established statewide civic literacy guidelines. The result: The 12 institutions governed by the board require rigorous study in U.S. government or history. Similar results can be found at the universities under the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma State Regents, the Nevada Board of Regents, and the Georgia Board of Regents. An added benefit: System-wide general education requirements facilitate transfers between the two- and four-year schools, dramatically 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 challenging 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 have them scattered throughout 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 might require serious, college-level work . . . or it might 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 mathematics or writing course on the basis of these test scores, at times as low as a 510 SAT writing score or a 22 on the ACT English section (University of the Pacific), or a 600 SAT mathematics score (Aurora 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 will 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 12% 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 Olivet College, students can substitute foreign language study with “Introduction to Mass Communication” and “Psychological Aspects of Gender”2; and at South Dakota State University, courses such as “Science Fiction” and “History of Country Music” fill the same requirement as foreign language study, allowing students to bypass foreign language entirely.3 

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

Colleges and universities constantly profess to deliver 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 evaluated competing presidential candidates.4 Understanding how individuals, households, and societies allocate scarce resources—and learning to think about how they would be best served to—is vitally important today, at the level of both individual and society. Indeed, many of the most serious challenges that the United States has faced in its history, and several of those most likely to face the next generations, are questions we will only be able to address with a solid grounding in economics or political economy. Unfortunately, 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 The most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy revealed that only 31% of college graduates achieved proficiency on their quantitative literacy test.6 This should be no surprise since only 57% 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.7 Moreover, a 2019 article in EdSurge states, “Hiring people who understand and can relate to people and communities that use their products has become an important goal for many STEM companies.”8 The skills gap in STEM fields will only continue to widen if significant numbers of colleges and universities maintain the bad practice of not requiring mathematics courses at the college level. 

There are some curious selections in the cafeteria line.

Many colleges and universities continue to stress the importance of helping students to cultivate foundational knowledge and skills, but proceed to allow those students to satisfy general education requirements with an array of electives that lack coherence or cohesion. “Cafeteria-style” general education curricula are increasingly common, but lack the focus that would allow them to achieve meaningful learning objectives. The following are a few of the more peculiar general education classes we came across in our research: 

• University of Pennsylvania: “Monsters of Japan” fulfills the “Cross-Cultural Analysis” requirement. 

• Indiana University–Bloomington: “Global Pop Music” fulfills the “Arts and Humanities” requirement. 

• Swarthmore College: “Modern Addiction: Cigarette Smoking in the 20th Century” fulfills the “Social Sciences” requirement.



  1. Elizabeth D. Capaldi Phillips & Michael B. Poliakoff, The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2015),
  2. Olivet College, 2018–19 Academic Catalog, 84,
  3. South Dakota State University, “General Education Requirements,” 2019–2020 Undergraduate Catalog, SGR Goal #4,
  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. Elizabeth Greenberg and Ying Jin, 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy: Public-Use Data File User’s Guide (NCES 2007- 464), U.S. Department of Education (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2007), pdf/2007464.pdf
  7. 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,
  8. Benjamin Pimentel, “Dear Liberal Arts Major: STEM Companies Need Your Skills to Grow,” EdSurge, February 25, 2019,