Trustees | General Education

Academically Adrift

WASHINGTON POST   |  January 19, 2011 by Anne D. Neal

A new study regrettably confirms what the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been saying for some time: Many students aren’t learning very much at all in their first two years of college. As troubling as it is, it comes as no surprise to ACTA, and here is why.

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press) by co-authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa documents the ugly underbelly of American higher education—a culture that is anti-intellectual and that often produces students who have neither the skills or knowledge they will need to succeed after graduation.

What do I mean? ACTA’s study of more than 700 top colleges and universities around the country, enrolling over 6 million students, shows that students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language or American history. Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?

To be specific, our study found that less than five percent of schools require economics and less than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature. Less than a third require U.S. government or history, or intermediate-level foreign language. Of the more than 700 schools, sixty percent received a “C” or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects.

Can there be any question why America increasingly finds itself at a competitive disadvantage when our higher education institutions are failing to do their job? And all of this failure from a postsecondary system that costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations. We outspend and we underachieve.

As Daniel de Vise pointed out in his November 21, 2010 article on, “Within the higher education establishment, the A-to-F ratings have not been warmly received … but the idea behind the ratings has broad appeal.” He quotes Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington saying, “I think the criticism that students may not be learning enough in general education resonates with most colleges.” We now have positive proof that higher education is failing at its duty.

So what is to be done? At the end of the day, the goal should not be simply to have more students with sheepskins, but rather to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think critically. Trustees need to step up to the plate and turn the higher education ship around. ACTA is reaching out to 10,000 of them to address this national scandal.

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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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