This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on October 31, 2015.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is a nonpartisan higher-education organization that, for 20 years, has provided us with much-needed data on the quality of American institutions of higher education. ACTA recently released the 2015-2016 edition of its national survey of college curricula, titled, What Will They Learn? Sad to say, its findings generally are less than encouraging and are, in some cases, no less than frightening. Prospective students and their parents should take note.
Launched in 2004, What Will They Learn? investigates the “state of general education, those courses designed to give college students a firm grounding in the areas of knowledge they will use for a lifetime.” ACTA examined 1100 colleges and universities nationwide to find whether these schools require “seven key subjects: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Science.” The website also offers easily-accessible information on college graduation rates and tuition prices, as well as other useful information.
From its study, ACTA concludes that, although our students “increasingly need broad-based skills and knowledge to succeed in the global marketplace, our colleges are failing to deliver.” Fundamental subjects like U.S. government, U.S. history, literature, mathematics, and economics “have become mere options on far too many campuses.” Not only is this failure to teach leaving students with “great gaps in their knowledge,” but also, “employers are noticing,” which cannot bode well for this country’s “competitiveness and innovation.”
For those of us educated in a prior time, the very thought that essential subjects such as Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Science are now officially treated as “mere options” is shocking. Roughly fifty years ago, most universities had a required Core Curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences. But today, substantive core curricula have become rarities, having been replaced by “general education” and “distribution requirements”—terms that signal that the question driving higher education in the past—“What is the good life for a human being?”—has been largely jettisoned on today’s campuses.
On viewing the grades ACTA assigns to various schools, one is also shocked to see the disparity in grading between many so-called “elite” schools and those lesser known. As a Texan, I went first to ACTA’s facts about schools in my state. I expected that the most prestigious schools—which generally attract the most qualified students, possess the resources for intensive teaching and learning, and boast higher four-year graduation rates—would all have retained as required courses all seven of the fundamental subject areas mentioned above.
But that is too often not the case. Rice University, in Houston—a Tier One, private school—receives a grade of F from ACTA for its general education requirements. Why? Because Rice has no required courses in any of the seven fundamental subject areas. Southern Methodist University (SMU), in Dallas—also a private school—receives a grade of C from ACTA for requiring only three of the seven areas: Composition, Mathematics, and Science. SMU fails to require a course in Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. History, or Economics. But another private school, Baylor University, in Waco, receives an A grade from ACTA. Baylor requires six of the seven subject areas, failing only to require Economics.
Besides Baylor, other academic stars among Texas’ private schools are all lesser-known institutions. Houston Baptist University scores an A from ACTA for requiring six of the seven subject areas, failing only to require a foreign language.
Standing atop all Texas universities, public or private, in ACTA’s study, is the University of Dallas (UD), in Irving (not to be confused with the public University of Texas-Dallas). UD received the strongest A grade of any Texas institution evaluated by ACTA, and this by virtue of the fact that UD requires courses in all seven subject areas for all its students, regardless of major. UD is the only school in Texas to require all seven areas. In fact, of the 1100 colleges and universities nationwide studied by ACTA, only four institutions require all seven areas (the other three are Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More College, and Christopher Newport University).
Looking at ACTA’s information on Texas’ public universities, we find a mixed picture. No Texas public institution received an A, although three received “strong” B’s, which means that they require courses in five of the seven subject areas (none of the three schools require a foreign language or economics). These are: Texas Southern University, an historically black school located in Houston; Texas State University-San Marcos; and the University of Texas-Brownsville (now called the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley after merging with the University of Texas-Pan American)..
The remainder of the Texas public universities examined by ACTA all fare worse. They received either “weak” B’s (they require four of the seven subject areas) or still-lower grades. But the Lone Star State is not alone in displaying generally lackluster results. ACTA found that “less than half” of the schools it studied nationwide require Literature (35.9 percent); Foreign Language (12.7 percent); U.S. Government or History (18.1 percent); and Economics (3.1 percent). For these reasons, 64 percent of the 1100 schools examined earned grades of C (30.9 percent), D (24.2 percent), or F (9.3 percent).
Texas also mirrors somewhat another national pattern unearthed by ACTA, which it sums up in a discussion titled, “Reputation Isn’t Everything.” Although several well-known schools, such as Baylor and Pepperdine, score well in the ACTA study, note how, in both Texas and across the nation, many lesser-known schools score higher than those reputed to be best. “[M]any highly regarded universities enroll some of our nation’s top students and then give them nothing more than a ‘do-it-yourself’ curriculum. The famous Ivy League, for instance, is home to two ‘Bs,’ four ‘Cs,’ one ‘D,’ and one ‘F.’ These grades reflect significant curricular weaknesses.”
Without denying the other merits of some of the better-known schools, these institutions too often allow “students take obscure, esoteric, and sometimes lightweight classes in place of a rigorous, coherent liberal arts core.”
What consequences flow from our universities’ abdication of the task of enforcing a genuine liberal arts core? Consider the findings of the landmark national study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift, about which I have written here. Adrift tracked a national cohort of public and private college students for four years. Employing the Collegiate Learning Assessment, it found that 36 percent of students fail to show a significant increase in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills after four years invested in college.
However, Adrift also identifies mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities as the academic majors whose students demonstrate the greatest increase in their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. These are the subject areas that used to be part of the required core curriculum that used to be embraced by most universities.
Forget all that now. “Cafeteria-style” curricula are all the rage. Such is not the stuff of which a competitive 21st-century workforce is made. Worse, it is not the stuff of which informed, effective citizenship and leadership are composed.
What’s the remedy? For starters, prospective students and their parents should consult ACTA’s What Will They Learn? when choosing a college. If students and their parents begin voting with their pocketbooks through enrolling only in serious schools, the rest of higher education might well become serious once again.