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 2015-16 Executive Summary

October 2015


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 371 (33.5%)

C 342 (30.9%)

D 268 (24.2%)

F 103 (9.3%)

Less than half of the schools studied require:

Literature – 35.9%

Foreign Language – 12.7%

U.S. Government or History – 18.1%

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:

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 a broad-based, “well-rounded” liberal arts education. The reality is, however, that 64.4% of the schools surveyed require three or fewer of the seven core subjects studied. Critical subjects like American history, economics, and foreign languages are poorly represented.

Rhetoric is not reality.

Sometimes the contradiction between soaring rhetoric and disappointing reality is sharp indeed. Vassar College states that its mission is to make accessible “the means of a thorough, well-proportioned and liberal education” that inspires each individual to lead a purposeful life. The college makes possible an education that “promotes analytical, informed, and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourages articulate expression; and nurtures intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship.” Likewise, Rice University claims, “The distribution system presupposes that every Rice student should receive a broad education along with training in an academic specialty. This goal is achieved by courses that are broad based, accessible to nonmajors, and representative of the knowledge, intellectual skills, and habits of thought that are most characteristic of a discipline or of inquiry across disciplines.” Yet both of these schools fail to require any 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’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 $48,526 in tuition and fees but does not require a single one of our seven core subjects. Nor are its English majors required to take a course devoted to Shakespeare. The average tuition and fees at the 22 “A” schools that charge tuition is $23,706, 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 38.2% higher than at schools receiving an “A.”

College leadership 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 courses.

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 commit-ment to the liberal arts and academic excellence, but there are also some that deserve to be better known, such as Christopher Newport University, Clark Atlanta University, Colorado Christian University, Kennesaw State University, Houston Baptist 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 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 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: Among the 45 courses that satisfy the “United States Context” requirement are “Horror Films and American Culture,” “Wops and Dons to Movers and Shakers: The Italian-American Experience,” “Music in American Culture,” and “America Through Baseball.”
  • Elmira College: Students can fulfill the “United States Culture and Civilization” requirement with “Mental Illness in the Media,” “Leisure Marketing in America,” and “The Golden Age of T.V.”
  • University of Illinois–Springfield: “Game of Thrones” fulfills the Humanities requirement.
  • Linfield College: Students can fulfill either the “U.S. Pluralisms” or the “Individuals, Systems, and Society” requirement with “The Economics of Star Trek.”
  • University of California–Davis: Students may take “Vampires and Other Horrors in Film and Media” to fulfill the American Culture, Governance, and History requirements.

Regents and trustees can make a difference.

In some states, legislatures have created strong requirements for the study of U.S. history and government. 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?™. 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, Cal State–Monterey Bay allows students to fulfill their “U.S. Histories and Democratic Participation” requirement with classes such as “Environmental History of California.”

Regents and trustees have also taken the initiative to create comprehensive general education standards, as seen in states such as Tennessee, South Dakota, Georgia, 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 streamline transfers between the two- and four-year schools.

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.

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 common to find courses with titles such as “Tattoos in American Popular Culture” and “Tattoos, Piercing, and Body Adornment” (Pitzer College) or “Biff! Bam! Kapow!: The Philosophy of Superheroes” (Hollins University), which promises to “scour comic books, TV shows and movies.” 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.” At Skidmore, “Stage Lighting” 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.

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 shocking 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 had some sort of diversity requirement, in which students were expected to learn about people different from themselves. This is a commendable and 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 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. Recently at Union College, for example, students could substitute foreign language study with “Narratives of Haunting in U.S. Ethnic Literature”; and at Western Illinois University, courses such as “Food and Culture” and “Global Social Networks” stand in for foreign language proficiency.

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 U.S. government or history. Rather than learning about the foundations of their country, students are allowed to fulfill requirements with courses such as “History of Rock” or “Horror Films and American Culture.” The grim results of this curricular frivolity are apparent in the findings of the GfK Constitution Day survey (see p. 3 above). And citing ACTA’s earlier surveys, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni 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 students completing four-year degrees could not reliably “calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.” This should be no surprise given the fact that 59.4% 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:

  • University of Denver: Recent first-year seminars include “Gender, Feminism, Power & Pop Culture: Decoding Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Teen Grrls and Popular Culture,” and “Using our BRAINS: An Interdisciplinary Study of Zombies in Popular Culture.”
  • Chadron State: One first-year seminar is “Wizards & Vampires in Film, TV, & Literature.”
  • Salem State: Students may choose “Pop Culture and Identity” to fulfill the requirement for a “First Year Experience.” The intent of the course is to “spend the semester investigating pop culture and its impact on your identity.”
  • Plymouth State: “Sex and Cinema in the 20th Century” fulfills the “Past and Present Direction” requirement (the same category for which American history is an option).



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 2009, 89% of institutions surveyed said they were in the process of modifying or assessing their programs. A 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 past 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 chair Benno Schmidt. In their published report, Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees, they called upon trustees to reexamine their institutions’ 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.