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 2014-15 Executive Summary

October 2014


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, non-profit institutions. Combined, the 1,098 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 23 (2.1%)

B 389 (35.4%)

C 329 (30.0%)

D 259 (23.6%)

F 98 (8.9%)

Less than half of the schools studied require:

Literature – 37.5%

Foreign Language – 13.1%

U.S. Government or History – 18.3%

Economics – 3.3%

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

Colleges aren’t delivering on their promises.

By and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum. In their course catalogs and mission statements, colleges frequently extol the virtues of broad-based, “well-rounded” liberal arts education. However, these worthy sentiments often do not translate into worthy general education requirements. Over 62% of the schools surveyed require three or less of the seven core subjects studied. Critical subjects like American history, economics, and foreign languages are poorly represented among college requirements.

Rhetoric is not reality.

Sometimes the contradiction between soaring rhetoric and disappointing reality is sharp indeed. Among other examples, we find Simpson College, which states, “As a college strongly rooted in the liberal arts tradition, Simpson offers a general education curriculum that encourages a hands-on approach to a foundational liberal education. This program ... builds on the strengths of the traditional liberal arts approach to undergraduate education and adapts it to the needs of current students and future employers.” Likewise, Portland State claims, “The purpose of the general education program at Portland State University is to enable students to acquire and develop the knowledge, abilities, and attitudes which form a foundation for lifelong learning.” Yet both of these schools fail to require a single one of the seven core subjects evaluated in What Will They Learn?™.

Money is no guarantee of a good core.

This report makes clear that cost and reputation do not predict the strength of a school’s core curriculum. Students attending U.S. News’ top National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges are sometimes paying 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 is 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 $46,574 in tuition and fees but does not require a single one of our seven core subjects. The average tuition and fees at the 20 “A” schools that charge tuition is $25,770 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 over 26% higher than at schools receiving an “A.” The higher the tuition, the more likely it is that students are left to devise their own “general education.”

Trustees, administrators, and policymakers should note that it doesn’t necessarily take more money to produce a terrific education.

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 that are already renowned for their commitment to the liberal arts and high overall reputation, but there are also some that deserve to be better known, such as Christopher Newport University, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Colorado Christian University, Kennesaw State, University of Texas – San Antonio, 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 Kenyon. 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” curriculum. The famous Ivy League, for instance, is home to two “Bs,” three “Cs,” two “Ds,” and one “F.” These grades reflect significant curricular weaknesses. Yale does not require its students to take a college-level math or a dedicated composition course; 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 she chooses her 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:

  • University of Colorado – Boulder: The “United States Context” requirement may be satisfied by “Horror Films and American Culture,” “Wops and Dons to Movers and Shakers: The Italian American Experience,” “Music In American Culture,” “America Through Baseball,” and 41 other courses.
  • Elmira College: Students can fulfill the “United States Culture and Civilization” requirement with “Mental Illness in the Media” and “Leisure and Marketing in America.”
  • Bates College: The many “General Education concentrations” may be satisfied by such courses as “History of Electronic Dance Music,” “The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction,” and “Decoding Disney: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Animated Blockbuster.”
  • Linfield College: Students can fulfill either the "U.S. Pluralisms" or the "Individuals, Systems, and Society" requirement with "The Economics of Star Trek."
  • •Richard Stockton College: Students can meet the “Historical Consciousness” requirement with “Vampires: History of the Undead.”

Regents and trustees can make a difference.

In some states, legislatures have created core curriculum standards to ensure that crucial subjects are taught and high standards maintained. For example, Texas state law requires that all public universities teach courses on Government and American History; accordingly, every public institution in Texas receives credit for U.S. Government or History in What Will They Learn?™. 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, Cal State Monterey Bay allows students to fill their “U.S. Histories and Democratic Participation” requirement with classes such as “Environmental History of California.”

A better approach may be that seen in states such as Tennessee, South Dakota, Georgia, and Nevada, where regents and trustees have taken the initiative to create core curriculum standards that 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 21 institutions governed by the USG require an average of 4.5 of the seven subjects studied in What Will They Learn?™, well above the national average of 3.1. 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 streamline transfers between the two- and four-year schools.

Effective, efficient core curricula improve educational quality while lowering cost 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 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.

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.

In many cases, course titles and even descriptions are seemingly written to make a class sound fun and cool in a bid to attract students. It’s quite common to find courses with titles such as “Tattoos in American Popular Culture” (Pitzer College), and “Why is Miley in Malaysia?: Global Art, Media, and Culture” (Wellesley College). Sometimes a close look at course syllabi reveals a challenging class; sometimes it does not. Students or parents trying to select classes need a clear, accurate description, not a sales pitch.

Some general education courses evade a collegiate level experience in subjects that should serve to challenge and expand students’ skills. For example, at Albion College in Michigan, “Interpersonal and Family Communication” fulfills the general education “Modeling and Analysis” requirement, standing in for a true, collegiate-level math class. The course focuses on “the role communication plays in the formation, maintenance and dissolution of interpersonal and family relationships.” And at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, “Early Modern Europe (1500-1700)” fulfills the Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Professors need latitude in deciding what and how they will teach, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of levity, but colleges and universities need to do a better job of ensuring that the content of their curricula is college-level and transparent.

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 had some sort of diversity requirement, in which students were expected to learn about people different from themselves. This is commendable, and an excellent idea in our increasingly interconnected world. Surely, though, there is no better way to understand another culture than to speak its language; students who can speak and read a language competently are able to enter into another culture more deeply, and can continue to do so throughout their lives. Yet less than 14% of the schools we studied require students to learn a foreign language at the intermediate level. Some allowed elementary study of the kind typically required in high school to suffice; others had no requirement at all. Some allowed classes in both American and foreign cultures taught in English. At Union College, for example, students can substitute “Narratives of Haunting in U.S. Ethnic Literature” for foreign language study; and at Western Illinois University, foreign language proficiency can be forgone by taking such courses as “Food and Culture” and “Global Social Networks.”

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

Despite the boasts of college catalogs, few of their curricula will help prepare students to be informed and engaged citizens. This year’s survey showed that little more than 18% of our colleges and universities require even a single foundational course in American history or government. Rather than learning about the foundations of their country, students are allowed to fulfill requirements with courses such as “History of Rock & Roll” or “Horror Films and American Culture.” The historical and civic illiteracy documented in the Roper Survey commissioned by ACTA is an unavoidable consequence and bodes ill for the preservation of free government. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, citing the results of

ACTA’s survey, pointedly observed that “the profound and widespread ignorance” about federal processes has been a major impediment to effective governance.

Economics has never been more important, but hardly any universities require it.

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 daily news demonstrates the value of a basic understanding of economics—the economic trends and patterns crucial for so many different career tracks. Colleges and universities regularly speak of preparing their graduates for global competition. Yet despite the increasing importance of economics, just over 3% of the institutions studied require students to take a basic economics class.

Knowledge of math and science is essential in the modern world, but our colleges and universities are doing little to advance that understanding.

The National Survey of America’s College Students found that 20% of college graduates could not reliably “calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.” This should be no surprise given the fact that little more than 60% of colleges and universities believe students should take a college-level mathematics class. This ignorance is of more than academic interest; at a time when policymakers and the international job market clamor for increased technical competence and expanded enrollments in the STEM fields, inattention to math skills puts our nation at a serious competitive disadvantage.

There are some interesting selections in the cafeteria line.

As has been noted, many colleges and universities give the appearance of strict requirements, but allow students to satisfy the mandate by choosing from a long eclectic list of courses. This is commonly called a “cafeteria-style” curriculum. The following are a few of the interesting general education classes we found in our research:

  • Harvard University: “American Dreams from Scarface to Easy Rider” could count for literature credit.
  • University of Denver: First Year Seminars include, “Teen Grrrls and Popular Culture” and “Rock Theatricality: Performing Revolution In Rock n’ Roll.”
  • Vassar College: The requirement for a freshman seminar may be met by “America Television Comedy.”
  • Hobart and William Smith Colleges: Students can study “Monsters in America” or “ Rock Music and American Masculinities.”
  • Chadron State: Among the first year seminars offered is “Wizards and Vampires in Film, TV and Literature.”



Studies like the federal government’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy and, most recently, Academically Adrift, discussed above, tell us beyond a shadow of a doubt that many college students spend a lot of time and money but gain very little that qualifies as higher education in return. Admittedly, there is no simple solution to this problem. But having a baccalaureate degree signify real learning is surely a place to start. And moving away from the diffuse array of courses that now passes as general education to a real core curriculum is clearly a major part of the solution. It is nothing short of essential, if American graduates expect to compete effectively in the global marketplace. Here are steps needed to make it happen:

Colleges and universities must make improving general education an urgent priority. There are ample opportunities to do so: in a recent study, 89% of institutions surveyed said they were in the process of modifying or assessing their programs. The recent Roper Survey (see makes it clear that an overwhelming majority of adults believe a sound core curriculum is very important and that those just out of college understand the need for rigorous preparation as they face the harsh realities of the marketplace. However, “curricular change” does not necessarily mean “curricular improvement.” Parents, alumni, and trustees can be important voices for reform, and they must be informed and vigilant.

Students and parents should vote with their wallets for the institutions that provide a sound foundation. The ratings in this book are available at, a free resource that is continually updated and expanded. While there are many questions to ask before choosing a college, “what will they learn?” is surely among the most essential. If students and their parents place more emphasis on education, rather than reputation, institutions will respond.

Alumni and donors should take an active interest in the strength of their alma maters’ general education programs. They should not allow their degrees to be devalued by a decline in standards, and they can speak up against lowering standards. While donors cannot and should not dictate curricula, they can direct their gifts toward programs and institutions that share their values and priorities.

Boards of trustees, in collaboration with faculty members, should insist on a course of study that will ensure students learn the essentials: this means general education curricula characterized by meaningful requirements, satisfied by a select number of courses. Without leadership from trustees and administrators, internal campus decision-making often results in a fragmented and ineffective curriculum. While curricular change may make some faculty and departments unhappy, it is critical in giving students the education they need.

This year, 21 of the nation’s most distinguished college presidents, trustees, and policymakers met under the leadership of former Yale University president and CUNY board chairman Benno Schmidt. In their published report, Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, they called upon trustees to reexamine their institution’s general education programs and to push back against the costly proliferation of classes offered in lieu of a rigorous core curriculum. ACTA’s Restoring a Core trustee guide shows how trustees can work in partnership with faculty and administrators to advance meaningful general education requirements.

Policymakers should take note of the state of the college curriculum at the institutions they oversee and support. While legislators should not micromanage the classroom, they can and should ask questions about what their universities are doing to ensure that students get a well-rounded education. Policymakers should also focus on the budgetary advantages of a high-quality core curriculum. Small, highly-specialized courses have their place as electives, but they are not suitable for a core that is both cost-effective and academically effective. Educational quality will go up as the costs go down when a sound core forms the heart of a well-planned, coherent undergraduate academic experience.