Students & Parents | General Education

Brains and Brawn: Southern Flagship Schools Dominate On and Off the Field

REALCLEAREDUCATION   |  November 21, 2017 by Michael Poliakoff & Megan Reithmiller

It’s not every season that the most competitive college football programs are also recognized for having some of the best academic programs in the country. But this season, scholars and sports fans can root for the same teams in good conscience, knowing that when it comes to sound minds and sound bodies, nationally ranked college teams are setting a sterling example.

Many schools with reputable football programs put a foundational core education at the forefront of their mission. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s annual What Will They Learn?™ (WWTL) survey rates schools on their liberal arts core curriculum. Much like strength conditioning is a critical part of a successful football program, ACTA firmly believes a college general education program will lay the foundation for a healthy career and lifelong learning.

Schools receive a grade on an A-F scale based on the inclusion of the following courses in their general education curricula: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, Economics, U.S. History, Mathematics and Science.  

Right now, the Bleacher Report and WWTL agree: The Southern region of the United States continues to dominate college football and upset their northeast rivals with robust general education requirements. Nationally, the South has the largest percentage of higher education institutions with rigorous core curricula compared to the Northeast, the Midwest and the West. The ACC, SEC and the Big 12 dominate both football and WWTL scores in comparison to other conferences such as The Big East and Pac-10. Out of the eleven Southern schools represented in the AP Top 25, seven schools boast a grade of “B” or higher from WWTL.

The University of Georgia is still strongly bowl-eligible and is also one of only 24 “A” schools in the country. Alabama and Clemson are consistently two of the best teams in the nation and both have strong requirements, earning “B’s” from WWTL. The Sooner State performs admirably with the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University ranked in the AP Top 25 and both earning a “B” in WWTL.

Six out of the CFP Top 25 and seven of the AP Top 25 score a “B” or higher on the WWTL report card.

The other schools not strongly represented at the top of the rankings should be competing to earn better grades for their general education programs. After all, only one team can win the championship, but every school is capable of delivering a quality education at an affordable price. All it will take for other schools to keep up with these academic frontrunners will be to trim course catalogs (potentially saving money on instructional budgets) and refine course requirements so that every student is exposed to a wide array of subjects and ideas.

College football will continue to shock and surprise fans. But when football season ends, professors and provosts will only be halfway through their regular season. Strengthening their liberal arts core gives universities a chance to get off the academic bench and flex their curricular muscles. The only question is whether universities outside the SEC will complete the pass or continue to fumble when it comes to academic rigor.

Dr. Michael Poliakoff is President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Megan Riethmilller is program officer for curricular improvement at ACTA.


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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