Trustees | General Education

Colleges’ lax educational standards putting students at ‘competitive disadvantage,’ report finds

WASHINGTON TIMES   |  October 12, 2016 by Bradford Richardson

A new study indicates the vast majority of colleges and universities are failing to teach their students core disciplines necessary for success in the workplace and the maintenance of a free and self-governing republic.

The “What Will They Learn?” report, commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), surveyed 1,100 universities and found that just 18 percent require students to take a course in U.S. history or government, and only 3 percent mandate students take even one economics class.

Published last month, the survey assigns grades to every major undergraduate institution based on curricular requirements in seven core disciplines: composition, literature, intermediate-level foreign language, U.S. history or government, economics, mathematics and natural sciences.

Only 2 percent of colleges received a grade of A by requiring students to take classes in at least six of the seven subjects. Meanwhile, two-thirds of universities in the report received a grade of C or lower.

ACTA President Michael Poliakoff said the erosion of educational standards in higher education “puts students at a competitive disadvantage” in an increasingly global economy.

The report also asked for assessments of universities from their provosts, 100 percent of whom rated their schools’ ability to prepare students for the workforce as “very effective” or “somewhat effective.”

But when a separate study this year asked employers to judge the performance of recent college graduates, 70 percent said they lack basic writing, arithmetic and critical thinking skills.

David Whalen, provost at Hillsdale College, said he agrees with the gloomy picture of higher education painted by the report, but took issue with one aspect of its grading methodology.

Admitting with good-humored chagrin that Hillsdale’s classics-based curriculum received a B in the survey, Mr. Whalen said the scorecard disproportionately weighs educational breadth over depth.

“For instance,” he said, “one of these criteria is a required course in history or government. But to have a curriculum as incorporative as does Hillsdale, where we have two specific history courses required and a course in the U.S. Constitution required — in other words, a total of three courses addressing those particular areas — that intensity of coverage finds no way of being reflected in the survey.

“As you might expect, I think Hillsdale’s own score ought to be much, much better, so I would quibble about some of the ways in which they score things,” Mr. Whalen said.

As to the report’s broader findings, he said the revelation of lax educational standards across the higher education landscape comes as no surprise given the state of unrest on college campuses.

College students mewling about the threat posed by offensive Halloween costumes, or demanding physical safety from thoughts with which they disagree, may be objects of ridicule and mockery to those on the outside looking in.

But Mr. Whalen said these troubling educational trends do not bode well for the health of the republic, noting that the very concept of self-government necessitates a citizenry that is able and willing to govern itself.

“What happens when you don’t have a liberally educated citizenry is you get a citizenry that is (a) dependent on some big provider to just take care of them for their entire lives, and (b) they develop feelings that they are entitled to that dependency,” the Hillsdale provost said. “The current generation’s presumption on earning extremely high incomes with very little work immediately after college is legendary.”

He said the excesses to which a democratic republic is prone are impossible to check “if you don’t have people who are masters of their own minds and hearts.”

Mr. Poliakoff advocated a return to the liberal arts — such as literature, philosophy, mathematics and language — to address the civic and economic challenges that face America.

“Employers — and our nation — need graduates who have a solid grounding in the liberal arts, and this research shows definitively that too many colleges have turned their backs on general education, even as their tuition rates are at an all-time high,” he said. “Charging such high tuition rates without preparing students for career, community and citizenship is simply unacceptable.”

Mr. Whalen concurred, arguing that the liberal arts instill students with a rigorous desire to understand the unfamiliar, which aids them in seeking the “good life” and striving for excellence in the workplace.

“Another simpler and shorter way of saying it, if you perfect and furnish students’ minds, which is what liberal education does, the result is not superficial cocktail party banter but rather the ability to confront a highly complicated and rapidly changing world,” he said.

“What Will They Learn?” is a recurring survey that is in its eighth edition. It provides a searchable database through which individual college and university grades can be accessed.

Harvard University received a grade of D in this year’s iteration, while fellow Ivy League schools Princeton and Yale fared slightly better, each receiving a grade of C.

Among the few schools to receive an A were Baylor University, Colorado Christian University, Pepperdine University and both St. John’s College campuses.


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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