Students & Parents | General Education

What Will They Learn?

Online guide uncovers colleges' poor general education requirements
INSIDE ALEC   |  September 1, 2009 by Charles Mitchell

Families are paying more than ever for higher education. But what are they getting?

Specifically, are our college students gaining the knowledge and skills they need to compete in the global marketplace, lead our nation thoughtfully, and be lifelong learners?

These are the questions the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) asks in a new report and online college guide called What Will They Learn? And they are questions that should be of interest to state legislators.

After all, whether students are getting the preparation they need is an extremely important issue not just for our students, but also for America’s future—today’s college graduates are tomorrow’s leaders. And the truth is, most people assume college graduates are prepared. Colleges surely trumpet this claim, including at appropriations time. But is it really true?

ACTA’s findings, and comments from employers around the country, indicate there is cause for concern.

According to a recent study, only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book. In another recent survey, only 24 percent of employers thought graduates of four-year colleges were “excellently prepared” for entry-level positions. College seniors perennially fail tests of their civic and historical knowledge. And rates of leisure reading have taken a nosedive.

What Will They Learn? outlines why these statistics are so dismal: Students seldom learn what they are not expected to learn. And too many universities are not insisting that their students study what they need to know.

After researching 100 colleges across the country, including major public campuses in each of the 50 states, here is what ACTA found:

— Only 11 institutions require students to take a survey course in American government or history.

— Only 17 require a survey of literature.

— Only a little over half require genuine college-level mathematics and foreign language.

— Only two require a basic course in economics.

— A third do not require natural or physical science.

Simply put, knowledge in these areas is not optional in the workforce or in the voting booth—and it shouldn’t be on campus, either. Too often, though, it is, and the public doesn’t know it. That’s why more public information about what students are learning is needed.

With that in mind, ACTA has launched, a free, online, college guide. We invite all concerned citizens to view it and hope students and their parents will use the new resource to help them decide where to send their tuition checks. We hope legislators will use it to better understand how colleges and universities are performing, rewarding those institutions that are making certain their graduates are prepared to compete in the global economy and to lead our nation. Notably, five institutions receive “A” grades: the University of Arkansas, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, and the U.S. Military Academy.

Even as our students need broadbased skills and knowledge to succeed after graduation, our colleges and universities are failing to deliver. Not surprisingly, students are graduating with great gaps in their knowledge—and employers are noticing. If not remedied, this will have significant consequences for U.S. competitiveness and innovation. That’s why right now, all of us should be asking the question—what will they learn?—and making sure the answer suits our nation’s needs.


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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