Students & Parents | Core Curriculum

What Will They Learn? 2021-2022

A Survey of Core Requirements at Our Nation's Colleges and Universities
September 27, 2021 by ACTA Download PDF

Most college ranking systems, like the U.S. News & World Report, do not evaluate what students actually learn in the classroom. What Will They Learn? is the only rating system that examines the course catalogs of each school to provide an urgently needed, alternative assessment based on an institution’s core curriculum, the program of study that all students share. ACTA’s research team also collects data on several indicators that predict student success after college, including student-to-faculty ratios, campus-specific student loan default rates, graduation rates, the state of free expression on campus, and cost of attendance.

Some Key Findings:

  • Only 2.1% of the institutions evaluated earned an “A”; 423 campuses (37.3%) earned a “D” or an “F”.
  • Just 3.1% of U.S. colleges and universities require a course in economics.
  • Only 18.4% require all students to complete a foundational course in U.S. government or history. The good news: This year, 14 schools added a foundational course in U.S. government or history to their general education program.
  • Seventeen schools cut (or weakened) their literature requirement over the last year. Today, only 30.6% of institutions require all students to complete a course in literature 

Why It Matters:

  • General education makes up one-quarter to one-third of a student’s educational program at most universities. A well-designed core curriculum helps students to develop the skills and abilities that employers prize, including mathematics, critical thinking and written communication skills.
  • The need for stronger academic requirements has never been greater. Research shows that only 13% of Americans strongly agree that “college graduates in this country are well-prepared for the workforce.” 
  • Studies also reveal that 36% of college graduates show no significant increase in cognitive skills over the four years they are enrolled as full-time students, and only 34% of current college students express confidence that “they will graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the workplace.”

What Will They Learn? has been documenting for the last 13 years the crisis of weak core curriculum requirements. In addition to helping students choose the right college for the right reasons, ACTA works with college and university leaders on campuses around the country to strengthen curricula and raise academic standards.

“Fires are burning all over the academy: Tuition is skyrocketing, campus protections for free speech are crumbling, and students are learning less and less,” said ACTA President Michael Poliakoff. “It’s no wonder confidence in higher education is falling. Campus leaders owe it to their students to improve the academic experience so that graduates are prepared for professional success and informed citizenship”

“Choosing the right college or university is one of the most important decisions young people make,” said Jonathan Pidluzny, ACTA’s vice president of academic affairs. “Unfortunately, most college ranking systems drive prices up without improving the quality of education being delivered. That is why we built a college choice tool focused on what schools are actually teaching.”

Find the 2021–2022 ratings here. Visit our interactive college choice tool here.


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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