Students & Parents | General Education

What are they teaching? Ranking America’s universities

ANNISTON STAR   |  September 1, 2009 by Editorial

Every year, U.S. News & World Report publishes an edition that ranks colleges nationwide. Although justly criticized for the emphasis it places on reputation, endowment and alumni support, the rankings prove—again the competitive nature of America’s colleges.

As surely as one lands in the top 10 in any category, you can bet that recognition will be displayed prominently in the next mailing to prospective parents and their parents.

However, there are those who feel that the U.S. News’ system leaves out an important part of the equation—just what are colleges teaching these kids?

That was the question raised by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Its recent study produced some surprising results. (For the complete report, go to

As one would expect, that council approached the topic with a firmly fixed belief that higher education should provide, indeed demand, that all students who seek a baccalaureate degree should have mastered basic composition, literature, U.S. history, economics, math and science. Without knowledge in those areas, a person cannot justifiably claim to be educated.

Believing that, the council set out to examine the core curricula of 20 top national universities, 20 top liberal-arts colleges and 60 state flagship universities. Guess what they found?

Forty-two institutions re-quired two or fewer of these courses; as a result, the council gave them a D or F. Among the Fs were Yale, Cornell, Northwestern and the University of California at Berkeley, where a biological science requirement can be met with a course titled “Fitness for Life: Physical Adaptations to Exercise”—something someone might think was in the core curriculum of a Southeastern Conference football factory trying to keep marginal players eligible.

The good news is that by this measure, schools of the Southeastern Conference are doing pretty well. Both Auburn University and the University of Alabama (the only schools in this state to be studied) require at least four solid courses of the seven categories listed; they received Bs. So do the University of Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, the University of South Carolina and the University of Tennessee; they received B grades, too. The University of Florida got a C. Vanderbilt University, often said to be too academically demanding to be an SEC school, got a flat F.

That brings up another important point in the study. Some of the most expensive, and highly regarded, schools were among those ranking at the bottom when core courses were considered.

All of which is to say that parents should pay attention to more than a school’s national reputation, large endowment, famous alumni or even championship teams. Parents need to look at what their students are being told to take and how they are guided into courses that will give them that broad base of knowledge that’s necessary today.

Granted, there is more to study in college than core subjects. But finding schools with a solid core is one way to find schools that will teach children well.


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