ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Colleges Failing to Prepare Students for Careers and Citizenship

ACTA launches 11th edition of What Will They Learn?

September 10, 2019

Washington, DC – The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has released the latest edition of its signature publication What Will They Learn? 2019-2020. This year’s report has a new look with a revised website, a new focus on high school counselors, and an emphasis on what employers believe a core curriculum should provide to students.

Unlike popular ranking systems, What Will They Learn?® uniquely assesses the core academic requirements at 1,123 four-year institutions that together enroll more than eight million undergraduate students. Grades are assigned based on whether colleges and universities require all students to take courses in seven priority subject areas as part of their general education programs. Those subjects, identified as critically important to a 21st century college education by ACTA’s Council of Scholars, are: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science.

“It’s not surprising that public confidence in higher education is falling,” said Michael Poliakoff, ACTA’s president. “Amidst all the fanfare about the release of the latest college rankings this week, there is not a peep about ill-informed citizens, often underprepared for the workforce, who are graduating from our colleges and universities with mountains of student debt. By focusing on resource inputs, admissions selectivity, and institutional reputation, the major rankings systems drive costs up but show little interest in what students learn—or don’t learn.”

This year, only 22 institutions earned an “A” for requiring 6–7 of the core subject areas, and 137 schools failed.  While most universities require students to take courses in composition and the natural sciences, curricular gaps are common everywhere else.

  • 82% do not require students to take a foundational course in U.S. government or history.
  • 43% do not require students to take a college-level mathematics course.
  • 68% do not require students to study literature.
  • 88% do not require intermediate-level foreign language courses.
  • 97% do not require a course in economics.

A rigorous and coherent core curriculum, focused on courses in traditional arts and science disciplines, is the best way for students to develop the capacity for critical analysis, oral and written communication skills, and intercultural fluency that employers increasingly demand.

Colleges and universities are also failing to prepare students for informed citizenship. The lack of a U.S. government or history requirement, in particular, helps to explain why in a recent survey, nearly 1 in 5 Americans selected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the author of the New Deal.

At most universities, it is possible to take ACTA’s recommended core curriculum in 21 to 27 credit hours—which is less than one-fifth of a 120-hour baccalaureate degree. There is no reason that higher education cannot uphold this essential body of skills and knowledge for all students.


MEDIA CONTACT: Connor Murnane
PHONE: (202) 798-5450