ACTA Grades More Than 700 Colleges On General Education

August 16, 2010

Report card and red penColleges across the nation are coming up short on what students need to know, reported the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an independent non-profit that promotes academic freedom, academic excellence and accountability.

According to a press release from ACTA, more than 700 colleges and universities were evaluated based on core subjects that ACTA deemed as essential to a "strong foundation of knowledge": composition, mathematics, science, economics, foreign language, literature and American government or history. Each school was given a grade from "A" to "F" based on how many of the core subjects it required. To receive an "A", a school must require six to seven core subjects. A school with no requirements, or only one, would be given an "F".

The ACTA reported that colleges and universities have failed to provide students with a general education, which has created large gaps in their knowledge. The organization gave more than 60 percent of all schools a "C" or worse for requiring three or fewer core subjects. Nearly 40 percent of schools did not require college-level mathematics and less than five percent required economics. Only 16 schools earned an "A".

Furthermore, ACTA found that public institutions were doing a better job than private institutions when it came to teaching students basic skills and knowledge. More than half of all private schools received a "D" or an "F" while 44 percent of public institutions received a "B" or better. Public schools also provided a stronger foundation at a lower price: based on 2009 figures, average tuition at the more than 100 "F" schools was $28,200, whereas average tuition at the 16 top schools was $13,200.

The Washington Post reported that one of the causes for this lack of fundamental education is schools offer too many subjects to fulfill certain requirements and many of those classes are of questionable value. Emory University, for example, offers approximately 600 courses for its "History, Society and Culture" requirement. Anne Neal, ACTA president, argued that universities are supposed to help guide students to classes that will "develop healthy minds" and that giving students so many choices can be detrimental. "It's ludicrous to take an 18-year-old and give them hundreds of choices when they don't have any basis for making a decision," she said.

Additionally, when given such a range of options, by nature students will opt for what is fun, easy or most interesting, which is not always the most content-rich. The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that at California State University Monterey Bay, students can choose to take "The History of Rock and Roll" to fulfill their U.S. history requirement.

At a time when higher education is becoming more and more inaccessible due to rising costs, ACTA's findings are an essential tool to help students and parents determine where they can get the most for their dollar. Critics, however, feel ACTA's methods are outdated. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, argued that ACTA's grading system is based on a 1950s model of what college students should learn. Schneider pointed out that today about seven out of ten institutions require some study of world cultures or global perspectives, but the ACTA does not acknowledge this type of competence. "There's a huge amount of energy in higher education devoted to revitalizing a content-rich general-education program that is highly focused both on the knowledge students need and the skills they need for a 21st-century competence," said Schneider.

Neal, however, told The Washington Post that ACTA's grading system does not tell the whole story about an institution. Rather, it is one piece of information that can help "fill a gap so that parents and students can make better choices".

Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin


"Colleges come up short on what students need to know," washingtonpost.com, August 15, 2010, Kathleen Parker

"What the College Rankings Won't Tell You," goacta.org, August 16, 2010

"Yale gets an F? New Assessment of colleges' required education," csmonitor.com, August 16, 2010, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo

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