Students & Parents | General Education

What Will They Learn?

COLLEGE SMART RADIO   |  October 26, 2013 by Michael B. Poliakoff

It’s no secret that there’s a crisis in higher education: Weak core requirements, painfully low graduation rates, soaring tuition costs and campus speech codes that stifle freedom of speech.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just released the 2013-2014 version of the What Will They Learn? study. Every public college and university and hundreds of private institutions are evaluated for their core curriculum requirements. The findings: American graduates are too often entering the workforce and their communities with little or no exposure to key subjects.

Only 22 institutions (2%) receive an “A” grade for requiring at least six of seven subjects that are essential to a liberal arts education: literature, composition, economics, math, intermediate level foreign language, science, and American government/history. The average institution requires about three courses—meaning in too many places, graduates aren’t expected to have any more knowledge of these pivotal courses than a twelfth grader.

Sadly, students sometimes don’t realize the importance of a core foundation of knowledge until after graduation. According to a Roper survey, 70% of Americans support a strong core curriculum, and that number leaps to 80% among the age group that includes recent college graduates. Moreover, four in five employers believe that graduates should have exposure to this broad foundation of knowledge, regardless of major.

One of the most surprising findings of this year’s What Will They Learn? is that the average four-year graduation rate is a paltry 26% among first time, full time students at public colleges and universities. Not only is this a tremendous disservice to the student and the taxpayer, but this is contributing to the skyrocketing debt among graduates. Combining the figures for public and private colleges, only two in five students complete a four-year degree program in four years. Families and students don’t expect a four-year college degree to take five, six or more years to complete. But too often, that’s the norm—and that can mean a lot more debt for students.

The system is so costly that President Barack Obama called for a federal ranking to show how colleges and universities perform. What Will They Learn?  provides a reliable set of data, without federal intervention, which can show which colleges provide a strong liberal arts education, respect freedom of speech, and, as the president said, which colleges offer “the most bang for your educational buck.”

This year, ACTA included a new metric in the study. Simply put, too many schools stifle free speech on campus by hastily assembling politically-correct speech codes. We believe that a crucial component of college is to debate and discuss freely and openly.  If we can’t have unfettered freedom of speech on our college campuses, where can we have it? ACTA partnered with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to assess the state of free speech on campus. Of the institutions that have ratings from FIRE, less than 4 percent receive a “green light” rating for not threatening free speech. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) garner a “red light” rating, meaning the institution has at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts freedom of speech.

Our nation’s colleges are in crisis. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that our college campuses not only deliver a quality education at an affordable price, but also deliver that education in an environment that invites free and open debate—not restricts it. What Will They Learn? is a resource to help families decide which colleges are delivering on that promise. Sadly, far too many fall short.


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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