Students & Parents | General Education

What we need for our universities

A recent study of more than 1,100 colleges and universities in the United States found that only 18 percent require even one foundational course in American history or government.
VIRGINIAN PILOT   |  May 1, 2016

Virginia is where British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington at Yorktown. It is the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents. It is home to both Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater and the University of Virginia, which he founded.

Yet among all Virginia public colleges and universities, only Christopher Newport and James Madison require a foundational course in American history or government. Christopher Newport alone requires economics.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni regularly surveys college students and the public to gauge Americans’ knowledge of fundamental subjects like history and economics.

In January, ACTA released the findings of a survey showing that 10 percent of college graduates thought Judith Sheindlin — also known as TV’s “Judge Judy” — is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly half failed to identify the correct term lengths for U.S. senators and representatives. Previous ACTA studies have found that only half could identify when the Civil War occurred. Only 40 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge took place during World War II. Fully one quarter of them didn’t know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II. And these results come from a multiple-choice survey.

Literature, American history and foreign language once defined a college-educated person. Today? Not so much.

The “What Will They Learn?” study of more than 1,100 colleges and universities in the country found that only 18 percent require even a single foundational course in American history or government. Only 36 percent require literature, and only 3 percent require basic economics. At most colleges, students can graduate without any more knowledge of these crucial subjects than a 12th-grader.

It’s tragic enough that most students can graduate from college without the benefits of critical, college-level discussions in these subjects. That students and taxpayers are paying record-high tuition rates, and students are often saddled with debt lasting years after graduation, makes it even more depressing.

Contrary to popular belief, by world standards American higher education is remarkably well funded. Per pupil, we spend almost twice the average spent by other developed nations. But we don’t see above-average results on international tests of core skills or on tests of basic knowledge.

ACTA notes that the “sticker price” of tuition and fees at public universities increased, since 1986, by more than 300 percent (adjusted for inflation). If the price of milk increased at the same rate as higher education, this morning’s gallon of milk would cost $14.72.

What are we buying with that money? Some goes to athletic programs that are unable to sustain themselves. Sometimes it goes to university administrative salaries that outstrip — by a lot — the salary of the president of the United States.

But a bloated curriculum is a major culprit. A recent study shows that universities could save up to 10 percent of their instructional budget by restoring a thorough and efficient core curriculum.

Wise use of money and an effective core curriculum are remarkably compatible. Many institutions nationwide present a “core” curriculum with hundreds, if not thousands, of options from which students choose. It is a core in name only, and what students often get is a random set of courses that include topics of the most limited scope. Instead of a foundational course in American history or government, students at the University of Colorado–Boulder can take “Music in American Culture” or “America Through Baseball.” At Richard Stockton, it might be “Vampires: History of the Undead.” These are not isolated examples.

The last, best hope for quality in undergraduate education is for college leadership, especially trustees — the fiduciaries of colleges and universities — to stand up for today’s students and insist on fiscal prudence and a curriculum that includes rigorous coursework in core skills and knowledge. American higher education has been known as the envy of the world and has deserved that reputation. But that glory of our nation will not last without the active, energetic attention of those who govern higher education.


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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