Students & Parents | General Education

Are American institutions advancing the core curriculum?

EDUCATION DIVE   |  October 18, 2017 by Pat Donachie

The overwhelming majority of American colleges and universities do not require students in their freshmen year to take general core classes prior to selecting a major, according to a new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

A profile of the nation’s core curriculum — choices vs. engineered study

Throughout its survey entitled “What Will They Learn?: A Survey of Core Requirements at our Nation’s Colleges and Universities,” ACTA analyzed undergraduate catalogs and other materials from more than 1,100 colleges and universities throughout the country.

The council determined there are seven core subjects, including composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, math and natural science, but only 2% of schools mandated students take six or seven of these subjects. More than 66% of schools required three or less, which matched findings from nine previous annual reports released by the ACTA.

But, the results are disheartening for proponents of core curricula — 87.9% of institutions do not require students to study foreign languages up to an intermediate level, and 82.4% do not require students to take a course in U.S. government or history. In 41.9% of schools the same is true for mathematics and 18.8% do not require students enrolling in an English composition course.

And, Many schools do not have any core requirements to fulfill, opting to allow students to independently chart their own postsecondary career, according to Eric Bledsoe, the ACTA’s Vice President of Curricular Improvement. He says many students come to regret their educational decisions in the years following their graduation, with some wishing they could have attended a different school or changed their major. In a distribution requirement situation, students may be selecting among an immense number of classes prior to enrollment, lists that could number into the thousands.

“The distribution requirement trend is alluring for a student….but once you peel back that veil it forces a school to lose focus of its mission,” he said. “Choice is a great and wonderful thing and it should be encouraged at the university level, but there are core knowledge bases that students should know before they enter a major.”

However, he has found the process of choosing may be “an unreasonable burden to place on a student in the first year.” 

Preserving choice while maintaining the school’s mission

Boards of Trustees at colleges and universities should not be getting involved in the construction of curriculum, but Bledose argues they do have a responsibility to look at the state of their respective institutions and question if it is living up to their mission. School administrators and leaders bear the brunt of the responsibility in making sure that is the case, and should consider how the lack of a core curriculum can be damaging to students.

“At that curricular level, along with the guidance of field experts which ultimately are faculty, they have a responsibility to see the university as a whole and at a more holistic level, apart from specific departments,” he said.

Bledsoe also points out a recent Department of Education report found many first-generation college students who dropped out of college reported they did not have enough guidance in course selection, and many found college curricula to be too confusing to navigate. “That’s not 100% the answer, but it’s a big part of the answer.”

Bledsoe says he believes revisiting the need for a core curriculum can potentially have an impact on graduation rates, especially for those first-time students. The survey also finds differences in the average costs between the schools with the most and least emphasis on a core curriculum.

ACTA grouped schools into different ‘letter’ grades, from ‘A’ to ‘F’, depending on how many core courses they mandated for students. Only 24 schools in the country received the top letter grade. And interestingly, Bledsoe notes those schools on average had lower tuition than schools that received an ‘F.’ The average ‘A’ school cost $23,811, while the average ‘F’ school tuition was 44% higher.

In addition to improving job prospects and satisfaction for students after their postsecondary educational career, the report asserts that a well-educated student body can potentially lead to a healthier and less divided body politic.

“American higher education must rededicate itself to ensuring each student acquires the skills and knowledge essential for career success and engaged citizenship,” the report stated. “An academic community in a free society must insist that all students have such an education and that teaching and learning be open to the free exchange of ideas and to debate. Our republic depends on it.”


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.

Discover More