Students & Parents | General Education

What’s behind a college diploma?

JOURNAL STAR   |  August 26, 2009 by Phil Luciano

What are students getting out of their college experience?

For many, not nearly as much as they should: Many schools are shortchanging students.

That’s the conclusion of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which calls itself an “independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.” The group looked at 100 schools nationwide—big and small, public and private (Bradley University not among them).

Last week, the ACTA released a report called “What Will They Learn?” That’s a great question, especially as tuition keeps soaring and schools begin another academic year (Bradley cranked it up Wednesday).

The report is an important tool for students and parents. It’s too extensive to break down entirely in this space. The report is at the Web site

The report says universities must offer a solid core curriculum: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, math and natural or physical sciences. This need goes beyond the lofty (yet worthy) goal of producing well-rounded graduates; rather, employers want grads to be creative thinkers comfortable with subjects outside their field of study. Universities need to be more than just vocational schools.

Some of the findings are troubling. For instance, only two of the 100 schools require students to take a basic course in economics. That’s horrifying in an era where the worldwide economy is falling apart, leaving many people confused as to the causes and possible solutions—and ignorant as to whether our leaders are making solid decisions.

After analyzing each school, the report gives letter grades to each. Money does not always indicate success. Vassar College charges $40,210 in tuition and fees, but earned an F; it offered not one of the seven core subjects. Meanwhile, the University of Arkansas, charging just $6,400 a year, rated an A.

Overall, a quarter of the schools—including big names like Yale, Brown and Johns Hopkins—got Fs. Only five got an A.

Only three Illinois schools were in the study. The University of Chicago ($37,362 a year) got a B; Northwestern ($37,125) got a F; and the University of Illinois (upwards of $25,334) got a D. The U of I did well in composition and foreign language, but has weak math (the requirement can be satisfied by such classes as “Principles and Techniques of Music Education”) and subpar natural or physical sciences (where the school offers classes as dubious as “How Things Work”).

Other schools have questionable classes. One institution allows a literature requirement to be met by a course called “Bob Dylan,” while another says “Floral Art” fulfills a natural science requirement.

That’s not to say students can’t take classes that go beyond core studies. The problem lies in schools’ allowing fluff to sub for solid courses.

The group urges alumni, donors and policymakers to take a look at schools’ curricula to see what students are getting for their dollar. Students and parents should take a keen look, too—unless (as at one school) you think “Introduction to Popular TV and Movies” makes for quality education and a valuable investment.


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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