What Will They Learn: Alternative College Ranking System Evaluates Course Content

Just before the publication of the popular U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges 2011, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released their content-based alternative college rankings on WhatWillTheyLearn.com. The free site evaluates colleges and universities across the U.S. based on the content of schools' curricula rather than reputation or self-reported data.


Failing the Fundamentals

In traditional college rankings, such as the recently published ''U.S. News and World Report College Guide'', 'academic quality' tends to be little more than an ephemeral concept. Ranking systems are more likely to measure alumni participation and peer reputation than the actual content of the curriculum. This, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), masks the real strengths and weaknesses of our colleges and universities. In response to a growing sense of alarm over deficits in American higher education, ACTA recently unveiled their own evaluation of institutions across the country. The new ACTA website attempts to answer a single question: What will students learn?

Scouring college catalogs, syllabi and even, in some cases, course textbooks, ACTA researchers evaluated 714 public and private universities to determine whether or not they require students to take the following seven core subjects: English composition, math, natural or physical science, economics, U.S. government and/or history, literature and foreign language. (Descriptions of what skills should be covered by these subjects can be found on their website.) Schools were assigned a grade from A to F based on how many core subjects they require. More than 60% of all institutions received a C or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects, and only 16 schools made the A-List.

ACTA points to these fundamental shortcomings to explain the worrisome fact that many American college students are graduating without core skills. In a press conference coinciding with the release of the rankings, ACTA president Anne Neal pointed to a recent study by the Department of Education that showed that a third of American college graduates can't compare two written editorials or reliably compute the cost of office supplies. Furthermore, a survey of U.S. employers found that a large percentage feel that students aren't graduating with the skills required to succeed in the workplace. ACTA hopes that students will utilize What Will They Learn to find schools that offer strong fundamentals and, in turn, that the website will place pressure on institutions to step up their core curriculum.

High College Costs

As Costs Rise, Scores Drop

One of ACTA's more intriguing findings was an inverse correlation between college costs and the number of required core subjects. The organization notes that a key part of their project was to help prospective students and their parents determine how much 'bang for their buck' they're getting out of higher education. Tuition and fees are climbing rapidly at schools across the country - there are 178 institutions in ACTA's '$30,000+ Club,' which lists schools that charged over $30,000 in tuition and fees for the 2009-2010 school year. Families need to know that their children are getting a solid education in return for such a big investment.

According to ACTA, students at the most expensive schools are not. Average tuition at schools that received an F for requiring one or zero of the seven fundamentals was $28,200. Over half of the top 20 national universities and liberal arts colleges according to U.S. News and World Report earned an F, yet students at these schools typically pay almost $40,000 in tuition. And private institutions, which tend to be at the top of the cost scale, fared particularly poorly. Fifty-two percent received a D or an F for requiring two or fewer courses - only 55% require English composition and only 46% require college-level math.

By contrast, public institutions did relatively well. Almost half (44%) received a B or better for requiring four or more subjects - over 90% require English composition and over 90% require science. The average tuition at public schools was $6,500 in 2009-2010, which fits with the model of 'the lower the cost, the better the grade.' Average tuition and fees at A schools in 2009 was $15,000 cheaper than the average cost of F schools, coming in at $13,200.

Among public institutions, historically black colleges and universities such as Tennessee State University did especially well. Out of the 43 HBCUs in the survey, the average number of required core subjects was 3.7, well above the national average of 3.1.

Student Conference

Building a Stronger Core

So what are students learning these days? ACTA found that many schools take a 'do-it-yourself' approach to undergraduate education that allows students to fulfill general requirements with any number of niche courses. Examples of more ridiculous classes ACTA encountered on their college catalog searches include The History of Rock and Roll, Global Martial Arts Film and Literature, American Horror Fiction and Cinema and Perspectives in North American Taiko.

This doesn't mean that the fundamentals have been completely dropped from schools' curricula. Jeff Killion, a rising junior at Vanderbilt University and ACTA 2010 summer intern, notes that many core fundamentals are offered at his institution. But because the list of courses that satisfy university requirements run the gambit from kooky to core, many students opt to take niche courses for the easier A. They may also avoid tough subjects like math or science because of negative high school experiences, never getting the opportunity to experience how rewarding these studies can be at the college level.

Both Jeff and the ACTA staff emphasize how important it is for these core subjects to become part of the general requirements at all institutions. Without guidance, young students aren't likely to make the right choices in building their education, and they'll suffer significantly for it down the road.

But the news isn't all bad. Although the What Will They Learn website was just released this week, ACTA reports that two schools that earned B grades have already contacted the organization. Both institutions have pledged to bring their core curricula up to A status. It's this kind of competition, says ACTA policy director Dr. Michael Poliakoff, that will make American colleges and universities 'true winners.'

Baylor University College Campus

The A-List

The following 16 institutions received an A from ACTA for requiring six or seven of the core subjects listed above. In alphabetical order:

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