Western Kentucky University is pushing back on a D grade its general education requirements received from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in a survey that reviewed academic standards.
In its annual flagship survey, “What Will They Learn?,” the national nonprofit gave WKU low marks for only including two of seven core subjects it views as essential to a high-quality liberal arts education.
But critics at the university said that doesn’t accurately represent WKU’s requirements.
“It’s an extremely narrow view,” said Merrall Price, an English professor, describing the survey’s analysis of WKU’s composition requirement.
Provost Terry Ballman issued the following statement to the Daily News.
“The Colonnade Program, WKU’s distinctive General Education curriculum, is a dynamic, rigorous program designed to challenge students and equip them to progress from their first semester to graduation and prepares them to be life-long learners in a constantly changing world,” she said “It also ensures that WKU students possess the necessary academic skills, a breadth of human knowledge, and an appreciation for the diversity of ideas and perspectives that exist in the nation and world as they graduate and enter the workforce or further their academic pursuits.”
The survey graded more than 1,100 four-year public and private institutions, including 18 in Kentucky, across the subjects of composition, literature, intermediate-level foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, math and natural science. While WKU was recognized for literature and science, it wasn’t in the other subject areas.
Results for each school are available at whatwilltheylearn.com.
The survey said WKU received no credit for composition “because only students who do not receive a satisfactory score on the SAT or ACT examination must take a writing course” to fulfill the requirement.
“Moreover, the ‘Writing in the Disciplines’ requirement may be satisfied by courses in a range of disciplines that do not focus primarily on expository writing instruction,” a note explaining the rating said.
But in an interview Thursday, Price said that doesn’t tell the full story.
The score for testing out of the requirement to take English 100 is a 29 on the ACT, a high score most students don’t earn before entering WKU. That means most students take the class, Price said.
If a student doesn’t score a 29 or above, Price said they can move on to take higher-level English courses.
“The point is that we want to see if they’ve already got the skills that they would acquire in the class,” said Price, who also serves as special assistant to the provost. “If they do already have the skills, then they get to go and use their energies elsewhere.”
Students also have several options for filling the English 300 requirement other than taking that Writing in the Disciplines course. Price said that could mean taking a communication foundations course or a Writing in the Geosciences course.
“But those are both classes that deal with expository writing at great length. So I don’t understand why ACTA would say that they don’t,” Price said.
The survey reviewed a mix of public and private schools in Kentucky, but none earned an A rating, which requires at least six or more core subjects. Along with WKU, seven other schools got a D grade.
Founded in 1995, the nonprofit’s stated mission is to “support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.”
It counts among its founding members Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
WKU also received no credit from the survey for its foreign language requirement because “students may fulfill the requirement with elementary-level study.”
While the survey looks for an intermediate level, WKU only requires students to have a “novice-high” level of foreign language mastery.
In granting WKU no credit for its math requirement, the survey claims the requirement “may be satisfied by courses with little college-level math content.”
Price said that’s not accurate. “I don’t know how they came up with that one,” she said.
Students can fulfill the requirement by taking Math 109, a general mathematics course that deals with non-algebra college-level math. They can also take college algebra, trigonometry, a symbolic logic class and statistics.
WKU doesn’t require economics or U.S. government or history, but they are electives. Students take a world history course instead of U.S. history as a requirement. Price said that requirement was adopted to emphasize the interconnected world students live in.
“There is a history requirement, but it’s not U.S. history,” she said.
Price said one of the strengths of WKU’s Colonnade Program is how it allows students to continue studying disciplines outside their major even as juniors.
“We are producing students who have comprehensive knowledge of many more disciplines than certainly when I was in school,” Price said, comparing WKU’s approach to the university she attended in Britain.
Under that system, students decide what they’re going to study in college at 16 years old and they study that subject exclusively, Price said.
While it’s nice to get a score, Price said “it’s not our first priority.”
“We’re not accountable to these people,” she said, referring to ACTA. “We’re accountable to the Kentucky taxpayers. We’re accountable to the students who we send out as excellent writers and who have a good all-around education and are workforce ready.”