Should American colleges and universities require students to take courses in certain core subjects considered important to a 21st-century education, such as science, economics, history, and foreign languages? It’s a question that has taken on added significance in light of a new web site that grades higher-education institutions according to whether they require these core courses in their general-education curricula.
Launched Aug. 19 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), WhatWillTheyLearn.com looks at the required curriculum of 100 leading colleges and universities. The site’s launch coincides with the release of U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings–and like this annual list, ACTA’s own assessment has sparked a debate.
WhatWillTheyLearn.com assigns each institution a grade from “A” to “F” based on how many of the following seven core subjects it requires: Composition, Mathematics, Science, Economics, Foreign Language, Literature, and American Government or History. Only a handful of schools get A’s, according to the council’s assessment–and several top-notch institutions, such as Yale University (No. 3 in the U.S. News rankings of national universities), Williams College (No. 1 in U.S. News’ rankings of liberal-arts colleges), and Amherst College (No. 2 on the publication’s liberal-arts college list) received an F.
“Employers are increasingly dissatisfied with college graduates who lack the basic knowledge and skills expected of any educated person,” said ACTA president Anne D. Neal. “If our students are to compete successfully in the global marketplace, we simply can’t leave their learning up to chance. As it is, thousands are paying dearly for a thin and patchy education.”
According to ACTA’s grading system, 42 of the top 100 institutions get a “D” or an “F” for requiring two or fewer of the seven subjects it has identified as critical to students’ success. Only five institutions earn an “A” for requiring six of the seven subjects: Brooklyn College, Texas A&M, the University of Texas-Austin, University of Arkansas, and West Point. No institution requires all seven, ACTA says.
Only two of the 100 schools–the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and West Point–require economics, and just 11 require American government or history. Barely half–53 out of 100–require mathematics.
“This study demonstrates that our colleges and universities have abdicated their responsibility to direct their students to the most important subjects,” said Neal. “No 18-year-old, even the brightest, should have to determine which combination of courses comprises a comprehensive education. But most colleges are offering nothing more than a ‘do-it-yourself’ education.”
Paul Woodruff, dean of undergraduate studies for UT-Austin, said he was pleased to see that ACTA “took the trouble to look at what our students are actually expected to learn.” Woodruff said Texas state law requires his institution to maintain core requirements–but “we do this with enthusiasm.”
“We believe we are educating students not merely for specific jobs, but for a life of learning as active citizens who will face a variety of challenges in the years ahead,” he said. “We are in the process of adding requirements in ethics, independent inquiry, quantitative reasoning, global cultures, and ethnic diversity, along with beefing up our requirements in oral and written communication skills.”
Some campus officials take exception to ACTA’s grading system, however.
Mark Montgomery, a former college professor and associate dean who is now an independent college planning consultant, noted that WhatWillTheyLearn.com reflects a particular point of view espoused by its creator, “an educationally conservative organization that promotes a ‘back to basics’ sort of approach to higher education,” he said. As such, its usefulness depends on whether you agree with its premise.
“One of the great strengths of the American higher-education system is its variety and level of choice,” Montgomery said. “Further, to be educated in the 21st century is very different from what it meant in the 19th century. As Daniel Pink or Thomas Friedman might point out, what matters today is creativity and nimbleness of mind. The substance of what one is taught may be less important than the habits and processes of learning.”
An Amherst College spokesman said one of the school’s defining characteristics is its open curriculum, which encourages intellectual curiosity. The spokesman would not comment on ACTA’s new web site further. Neither Yale nor Williams responded to requests for comment before press time.
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