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What Will They Learn?

The search for the right college can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, most rankings don't tell you what matters most: what students are learning. This resource does tell you, by grading colleges and universities on their core requirements in seven areas of knowledge.

Now in its 12th year, What Will They Learn?® annually evaluates the general education programs at over 1,100 U.S. colleges and universities, public and private, with a stated liberal arts mission. We publish the results in print and online every September with two major goals in mind. We aim to encourage institutions to strengthen their core curricular requirements so that students graduate better prepared for the workforce, ready to partic­ipate in their communities as informed citizens, and acquainted with our cultural and intellectual inheritance. And we work to educate families, high school counselors, and educators about the impor­tance of students selecting colleges or universities with a strong core curriculum.

Given that general education makes up one-fourth to one-third of a student’s academic program at most universities, choosing a school with the right core is every bit as important as choosing the right major. What Will They Learn?® is the only project of its kind, a resource designed to inform college-bound students, parents, high school counselors, and higher education policymakers what students are actually learning on campuses today.


ACTA’s What Will They Learn? study and website do fill a gap so that parents and students can make better choices. As a consequence, colleges and universities may be forced to examine their own responsibility in molding an educated, well-informed citizenry.

—Kathleen Parker, Washington Post


What We’re Doing

The Annual What Will They Learn? Report

What Will They Learn?® grades institutions on an “A” through “F” scale based on whether they require all undergraduate students to complete courses in Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science that meet carefully defined criteria. The print report is an aggregated report card for over 1,100 institutions arranged by state. The report also explains the importance of a strong general education program and why the issue matters not just to current and prospective students, but to every employer, taxpayer, and citizen. 

We distribute the report widely: to state and national media outlets, on social media, to college and university stakeholders around the country, and to over 1,100 state legislators on education committees. We receive hundreds of responses from higher education leaders working on general education reforms on their own campuses, policymakers seeking to strengthen higher education in their states, and high school educators wondering how best to advise juniors and seniors on college choice. We also hear from concerned parents interested in learning more about curricular quality, campus climate, and whether particular colleges are careful stewards of tuition dollars.

WhatWillTheyLearn.com

In 2019, ACTA launched a completely redesigned website, WhatWillTheyLearn.com. The website presents each school’s grade, along with information about graduation rates, tuition rates, and FIRE speech code ratings. It also allows families quickly and efficiently to search for institutions by region, WWTL grade, tuition range, and institutional type. Within seconds, a prospective student can identify, for example, all of the “A” and “B”-rated schools in the South that fit her family’s price range.

The website features new resources for high school counselors as well as webpages detailing the problems associated with traditional college rankings and the importance of strong general education programs in equipping students for success in the workforce. A “Hidden Gems” initiative spotlights outstanding academic programs around the country that provide rigorous curricula, excellent faculty, and a community of academically-oriented students—all at a fair price.

New webpages are coming soon on campus climate; a new ACTA scholars certificate; detailed profiles of Oases of Excellence on campus; and enhanced institution pages which will include student-to-faculty ratios, cohort loan default rates, alert indices for campuses that operate bias response teams, and recognition for institutions that have adopted the Chicago Principles.

Our Methods

At the project’s inception, ACTA identified seven subjects essential to providing students with the knowledge and skills they need for the challenges of career and community in the 21st century: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. What Will They Learn?® grades institutions on an “A” through “F” scale based on the number of these core subjects required of all undergraduate students, giving the public a clear measure at a glance of each school’s commitment to its liberal arts mission.

ACTA regularly convenes panels of distinguished teacher scholars to help us establish specific criteria for collegiate-level coursework in the seven core areas we evaluate. Every year, the Academic Affairs team reviews the published course catalogues of over 1,100 U.S. colleges and universities, a process that takes us more than 3,000 hours.

Our Standards

What Will They Learn?® awards credit in a core subject if the course is a true requirement, not an option, and addresses the topic at a collegiate level. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) examination results at an appropriately high level may stand as fulfillment of core requirements, but institutions do not receive What Will They Learn?® credit in a core subject area if they accept high school level examination scores, such as ACT or SAT results, in lieu of collegiate-level course work. 

Please visit WhatWillTheyLearn.com for more information about our grading scale and assessment criteria.

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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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