Students & Parents | General Education

New web site offers sobering assessment of some elite colleges

WISCASSET NEWSPAPER   |  September 10, 2009 by Tom Hanson

Imagine heading to a college ratings/ranking site and viewing the following set of grades: Yale—F; Cornell —F; and Bowdoin—F

One would think that would get your attention? How about: Penn—D; Harvard—D; and Princeton—C

So you think the folks doing the ratings must be dumping on every school, right? Not so, there is: University of Texas-Austin—A; Baylor University—A; City University of New York—Brooklyn College—A

These grades are the ratings offered at the web site,, a new guide that seeks to provide interested students a different lens with which to view America’s top colleges. Focusing in on specific curriculum expectations, the site aims to identify the schools that “are making sure their students learn what they need to know” to be successful upon graduation.

To determine which universities are making sure their students are learning just that, institutions are rated on courses related to seven key subjects: English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and science. In addition, to create their ratings, the site goes beyond the course title to examine the specific curriculum as well as who has been assigned to teach that course.

Utilizing these specific criteria, schools are then assigned a grade based on how many core subjects students must complete while completing their bachelor degree program. In the case of those schools mentioned above receiving an F, the rating comes from requiring only 0-1 core subjects. For those receiving an A, the rating is equated to the school requiring the completion of 6-7 core subjects.

While the site does also examine college costs, the ratings focus in on what is deemed to be a troubling development in higher education, the fact that core curriculum elements have become “mere options on far too many campuses.”

Liberal Arts School Ratings is sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an independent, non-profit organization that is a strong supporter of the liberal arts education model. Though one might suspect a bias towards schools focusing on a liberal arts program, it is interesting to see that the site actually provides very poor ratings for many schools deemed the best small liberal arts colleges in America (Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury for example).

The reasons for the poor ratings stem from a philosophy that excellent general education programming is about the unity of knowledge and making connections between different ideas. Just as importantly, it is not the combining of random ingredients that marks the curricula offered at these elite colleges today.

Of course, given how poor some of our perceived best schools score on the specific criteria, we can expect some of these colleges and universities to offer their rebuttals in the very near future. We can also expect them to find fault with the criteria being used to create the ratings.

Positive Concept

But while the specific course expectations seemingly could receive further debate, the concept of the site is a very good one. Given the move towards standards in K-12 education, it stands to reason that higher education would sooner or later become part of such a movement.

Given that development, we would think it was time that college ranking systems measure something other than an institution’s prestige, endowment and reputation. That is where seeks to go and why it is a site that prospective college students should look at when examining specific schools.

All told, the concept seems like an extremely viable endeavor. Taking a look at what students are actually required to learn while earning that diploma certainly ought to figure somewhere into the college ratings system.


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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