Students & Parents | Costs

Elite Colleges More Sizzle than Substance

MINDING THE CAMPUS   |  January 28, 2014

Recent studies say two things about the liberal arts. They’re very important…and they’re in a parlous state.

To figure out why they’re in trouble, ACTA looked at America’s finest liberal arts colleges in our new report, Education or Reputation? In addition to classic ACTA topics such as general education and academic freedom, we report on a host of measures of schools’ intellectual seriousness and management competence, including student academic engagement, grade inflation, faculty teaching loads, spending priorities, and the campus party culture. Consider:

Although the average endowment of these schools is almost $1 billion, elite colleges raised tuition and fees 6.2% to 17.1% above inflation over the last few years, a time when many families were cutting back on expenses.

Not a single institution except for the military academies requires a foundational, college-level course in American history or government. Only two require an economics course; only five require a literature course.

Instead of cutting costs to lower tuition and help students graduate without crippling debt, half of the institutions allowed administrative spending to grow faster than instructional spending.

Many of these schools have seen explosive grade inflation. From 1960 to 2000, Williams College saw its average GPA increase by .66 (on a 4.0 scale), Wellesley’s by .82. Vassar’s jumped from 3.12 to 3.48 in less than 20 years.

Eleven of these institutions paid their presidents base salaries of $400,000 or more to run colleges that typically have fewer than 2,000 students. These presidents are paid as well as—or better than—President Obama.

And there are a host of other challenges, from poor academic engagement (many students’ weekly academic work amounts to considerably less than a full-time job) to speech codes and a culture of intellectual conformity.

Education or Reputation also examines a remarkable study of management-track employees conducted by Bell Labs throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  The study found that liberal arts majors progressed through Bell’s management ranks more rapidly, and in greater proportions, than employees with other academic backgrounds. A more recent study finds that, by the peak of liberal arts graduates’ careers (when they are aged 56-60), these graduates earn salaries highly competitive with those of graduates who hold pre-professional degrees.

A rigorous, broad based liberal education is still a powerful preparation for career-long accomplishment. The trouble is, today, many students at “liberal arts” colleges receive only a shadow of that education. ACTA’s report—which concludes with recommendations for across-the-board reform—points the way forward.


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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