Students & Parents | General Education

Penn State nets a ‘C’ in gen ed assessment

October 8, 2016 by Lori Falce

Report cards are how we measure what kids learn.

Penn State recently got one critiquing what it teaches.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni put out an assessment of general education requirements at 1,100 schools across the country. Most received a grade of C or lower.

Only 25 schools got an A. None were in Pennsylvania.

“The erosion of general education requirements puts students at a competitive disadvantage they can ill afford in today’s rapidly changing labor market and knowledge economy,” said ACTA President Michael Poliakoff. “Nor does this broken curriculum prepare graduates to be informed, engaged citizens.”

Penn State was one of those netting a C.

But was it deserved?

“Among the tenets at the core of Penn State’s mission is the provision of a rigorous set of academic courses that will build a strong foundation for student success, regardless of major,” said university spokesman Reidar Jensen. “General education courses are designed to help students explore and integrate information beyond the specific focus of their majors, teaching critical skills early in a student’s career that will benefit them as they build toward completion of a degree, and that will transition with them to the workplace.”

According to the “What Will They Learn” report, Penn State is noted as requiring three of the seven core general educations areas ACTA judged — composition, math and science — but not literature, foreign language, U.S. history and economics.

But Penn State’s faculty senate took steps in April 2015 to revise general education requirements. New requirements were approved in March that will be implemented in 2018. It would focus on interdisciplinary thinking and have a requirement of a C or better for those bedrock courses.

“These include a new requirement for integrative studies, recognizing the complex inter-relationship among the sciences and quantification; humanities; social sciences; health and wellness; and the arts,” Jensen said, adding that the move was “a continuous review process focused on achieving the best student outcomes.”

Even before those are implemented, Penn State students have to complete 45 general education credits to graduate that seem to trip more triggers than just the three in the ACTA report. The university requires writing and speaking (which could include speech, composition, rhetoric and more), quantification (math, programming, statistics or logic), plus natural sciences, social or behavioral sciences, arts, humanities and health and physical activity.

“At 45 credits, our general education curriculum is one of the most substantial and comprehensive in higher education,” Jensen said.

Penn State, Pennsylvania’s largest institution of higher learning, did come in higher on the ACTA rankings than two of its Keystone State-related brethren. Pitt got a D and Temple pulled in an F. Tiny Lincoln, with fewer students than State College Area High School, got a B, noted for requiring both literature and composition, U.S. history and science.

“… The report includes some encouraging findings in addition to recommendations where the report’s authors think postsecondary institutions can improve their liberal arts education,” said Casey Smith, deputy communications director for the state Department of Education.

“In Pennsylvania, general education curriculum has been a major topic of conversation at colleges and universities,” he said. “The Department expects that postsecondary institutions will continue to explore general education requirements to address student and workforce demands.”

Look at the Big Ten and Penn State shares its C ranking with Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Iowa and Ohio state came out with a B. Nebraska and Northwestern got Ds and Illinois got an F.

The report does include some other statistics, though.

In addition to general education, it also looks at four-year graduation rates, something Penn State President Eric Barron has been talking about since taking over in 2014.

Northwestern students are most likely to graduate in four years, with the school pulling an 82 percent in that area, which might have something to do with a $49,047 tuition bill each year.

Look at those numbers and it’s not surprising that the Big Ten school with the lowest four-year graduation rate is also the one with the lowest price tag. Just 14 percent of Indiana students graduate on schedule, but tuition for in-state students is just $6,930.

Penn State is pretty much a C in this area, too, coming in fifth behind Michigan, Illinois and Maryland with a 64 percent on-time graduation rate.

So does that mean that Penn State (and the other schools discussed) are bad schools, or bad investments for students and families?

The report is ambiguous on that point.

“Our report is not intended to offer a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of a university. That some of the best-known colleges earn poor marks for general education doesn’t mean that they don’t do other things well,” the report said in its FAQs.

Princeton is ranked as the best in U.S. News and World Report’s annual assessment of colleges and universities. It got a C, too. So did Yale and Stanford. Harvard got a D. Berkeley got an F.

“Penn State is consistently ranked among the top universities in the world and has been recognized by employers as meeting the highest standard in preparing students for success in today’s workforce, including communication skills, ability to work in interdisciplinary teams, and work ethic,” Jensen said.


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