A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown.
The reason for such failures, according to a recent study: Few schools mandate courses in core subjects like U.S. government, history or economics. The sixth annual analysis of core curricula at 1,098 four-year colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that just 18% of schools require American history to graduate, 13% require a foreign language and 3% economics.
“It’s much easier for campus administrators to let faculty make decisions rather than to decide with them what are really important and what really matters,” said Michael Poliakoff, director of the survey. “It’s like saying to a lot of 18-year-olds the cafeteria is open, you kids just eat whatever you like.”
The report is often dismissed by college presidents as arbitrary, but it comes amid growing unease about the value of a university degree at a time of grade inflation and employer complaints that graduates are entering the workforce without basic skills such as critical thinking.
Last month, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa released a sequel to their book “Academically Adrift,” which follows a group of freshman who entered a four-year college in 2005. Many earned good grades while studying less than five hours a week, but more than a third didn’t significantly improve their critical-thinking skills, the authors said.
Their new book “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” checks up on the same group and finds that two years after graduation a quarter of them were living at home, and 30% were earning less than $30,000 a year in full-time jobs.
Mr. Poliakoff says the lack of a rigorous core curriculum is behind the failure to learn. At stake, he says, is the nation’s civic and economic health.
Among schools that fared poorly on the survey was Whittier College, a private liberal-arts college in Southern California. It earned an F because, by the metrics of the poll, it requires only one core course—in composition—and none in literature, language, government or history, economics, math and science.
Sean Morris, chairman of the English Department at Whittier, said the survey was superficial. The school has an interdisciplinary approach, so a history curriculum might be wrapped into an art or science course, and composition might be tied to math.
“We don’t mandate every single student take a class in American history…so you may find a senior not knowing the specifics of the New Deal,” he said. “But you will graduate knowing how to think and how to accumulate that knowledge and make connections between things.”
The authors of the report commissioned a survey in 2011 that found that 49% of Americans don’t think college students are getting their money’s worth from public schools and that 70% believe colleges should require basic classes in core subjects. Among adults between the ages of 25 and 34, the share was 80%.
“That’s the kicker,” said Mr. Poliakoff. “These are the kids who just graduated and were dealing with reality and they said ‘these are things we need.’ ”
Among schools that received one of the 98 F’s were Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Brown University in Rhode Island. A spokesmen for Wesleyan declined to comment. A representative for Brown wasn’t immediately available to comment.
Christopher Newport University in Virginia received one of just 23 A’s. “We believe that acquaintance with these seven subjects is essential to building a strong foundation for a meaningful and consequential life,” said university President Paul Trible, a former Republican senator from Virginia.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a nonprofit organization that advocates for accountability at U.S. colleges and universities.
And the answers to the survey’s history questions: The Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed the freedom of slaves during the Civil War; a congressional term lasts two years in the House; and George Washington led the American troops at Yorktown.