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The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) recently released its annual report on the courses American colleges require students to take. The report, “What Will They Learn,” assigns letter grades to colleges based on the number of core courses all students have to take and pass in order to graduate. We spoke with ACTA President Anne Neal (right) about the report.

Washington Monthly: What was the original thought behind “What Will They Learn”–what is it that made you guys decide that this was what the world needed?

Anne Neal: We wanted to take a look at the value added by the educational institution– actually happens when the student gets there, what is the educational framework that the school brings to bear, and so we decided to do a ratings system that is exactly what we called it: “what will they learn.”

WM: What were you surprised to discover the first time you did the ratings?

AN: We’ve been surprised that the state of disarray, in terms of a coherent core, was much broader than we had anticipated.

WM: What do you mean by that?

AN: We were trying to find out whether or not schools had a coherent general education curriculum. Most college catalogues promise parents and students that graduates will have exposure to key areas of knowledge and skills that they will need for success after graduation. So we looked at the actual requirements; we go to the catalogs and look at what students and parents see—in other words, the public information in terms of what’s required.

We found that there were many distribution requirements, but that under those distribution requirements there were hundreds or thousands of courses that students could choose from, so that it was possible to entirely miss exposure to American history or government, to economics, literature, foreign language at an intermediate level. Even though schools were promising a coherent general education, for the most part, they were not giving it.

WM: Are these only the requirements of the institution itself, or do you get down to what courses students actually take, the major requirements and college requirements within the institutions?

AN: We don’t look at specific concentration requirements. All we look at is what we refer to as the core curriculum, that is, those courses outside the major that the students take, generally to be exposed to broad areas of knowledge–essentially the breadth requirement.

We don’t look at the individual majors.

WM: What are the schools that you see to have rigorous core requirements, basically the core requirements that you want all students to take?

AN: We have seven core subjects that we look at. Composition, literature, American history or government, math, science, economics, and foreign language at an intermediate level. Certainly there are many other courses that are valuable and wonderful. But it’s our contention that to have a basically strong general education, most cores would have these seven key subjects. We grade on the basis of the number of those subjects that are required, so if a school has six or seven of these seven areas, that school gets an A, four or five gets a B, three requirements gets a C.

We have nineteen this year that are A grades on our website–we actually have an A-list–and it ranges from Baylor to Gardner-Webb to Morehouse to Pepperdine to Texas A&M to the US Military Academy. These schools had a strong educational framework when it came to the core curriculum., We also note when a school uses some sort of measurement of student learning.

WM: In the history of academia in the United States, is there a movement toward more core requirements or less of them? Did we used to require more core subjects out of our students, say, 100 years ago?

AN: I think what we’ve seen is a gradual growth in the number of courses that satisfy requirements, and elimination of the kind of prerequisites that we used to have. I know a study has been done, called “The Dissolution of Higher Education.” What it tracked was that over time, a limited number of core courses gradually grew to a whole range of courses from which students could pick and choose.

WM: Why did that happen?

AN: Over the years, particularly post-GI bill, these have been very good days for higher ed. In the last thirty or forty years they have had many, many resources, a lot of dollars, and the number of courses simply grew. I’m not even sure it was intended; faculty would say, “I’d like to teach this, can this fulfill that requirement,” and other faculty would ask to have their course, and so gradually there grew up vast numbers of courses that met the core requirements. I think one of the reasons that right now is such an interesting time to be looking at this is that, as these courses that satisfied requirements grew, they grew with real cost consequences. One of the points that we have been making in reaching out to trustees is that not only can you provide a more coherent curriculum by reducing the number of courses, you can also find ways to cut costs. Here is an opportunity to cut costs and improve quality.

WM: Okay. Are there any schools that have made that move?

AN: We are in discussion with some now that are looking to do that.

WM: The title of the publication is “What Will They Learn.” Do you attempt to measure the actual knowledge that students have, or is it just assumed that more stringent core requirements will result in more learning?

AN: Well, we assume that in order to learn the subject, it’s important to study it first. So we look to see, will they be expected to study it? This year we have added a new feature to the website which shows whether or not the school itself does an assessment of student learning. We have not analyzed that.

WM: What do you mean by that? Do you mean beyond the actual examinations offered in the courses themselves?

AN: There are various nationally-normed instruments out there that many, many schools are using, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment which is designed to measure cognitive growth. A very, very interesting study called “Academically Adrift” came out earlier this year, Professor Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa at the University of Virginia put out this report. What they did is they assessed approximately 3,000 students at several hundred institutions across the country to determine what kind of cognitive thinking gains they were having. On the basis of that assessment, these two professors reported that in the first two years of their college experience, forty-five percent were showing no cognitive gain. When they measured over a four-year college experience, more than a third were showing no or little cognitive gain after four years. This confirms, really, what we’ve found as we’ve analyzed the core curriculum– that pretty much anything goes.

WM: I’m familiar with that study. How is that connected to the core requirements? It’s possible to have very rigorous core requirements, but if they’re just courses that aren’t well-taught, you still wouldn’t learn very well.

AN: Well, that’s true. But what they say is, as they analyzed where students were showing cognitive gain they found that a rich liberal arts curriculum was the one most likely to produce that cognitive gain. Our study shows that very few schools have rigorous core requirements.

WM: There are A schools on your list, there are B schools, C schools. One of the things that’s interesting about this is that a lot of the schools that are A schools are not the schools we would think of as America’s fanciest colleges. You gave Brown, I think, an F.

AN: Yes.

WM: Does that mean that students who go to Baylor are better-educated than students who go to Brown?

AN: No, no. Basically, this is a rating system that looks at one thing. It’s looking at the general education and the core curriculum. It’s not a statement about the whole college experience. What it does say–in fact, I’m sure students can get a good education at most institutions–but, what we’re saying is that these schools that get A’s or B’s are the ones that have basically defined and described a curriculum that they want their students to have. They have, shall we say, a strong academic perspective that they articulated in their curriculum, and it is for that that we are giving them A’s.

WM: But there’s a philosophy–I know of Brown, there’s a whole philosophy behind it, which is to give the students the freedom to choose their own course of study. Is that a problem?

AN: Brown is an interesting case. Brown makes it very clear to students that they do not really have any general education requirements. So Brown gets an A in honesty in advertising. But Brown is an exception in that regard, because most college catalogs promise a strong core curriculum and do not deliver.

WM: So the problem is not specifically that colleges give students too much freedom to take what they want, it’s that they pretend to offer a core and then don’t actually follow through on it?

AN: I think that they pretend and then don’t follow through. So we are trying to showcase those schools that have made an effort to ensure students are exposed to key areas of knowledge, rather than simply doing a do-it-yourself kit, or leaving it up to the kids to construct their own curriculum.

WM: Do we know that students who graduate from colleges with louse requirements–and I understand what you mean by this, these courses are often vague, they often appear to be bullshit–do they not actually eventually get some breadth? They spend four years at these schools in some cases, doesn’t it eventually work out?

AN: We have determined that in significant numbers of schools you can go through four years without exposure to economics, or to math, or to science. Particularly as we’ve looked at the numbers, less than 20 percent of the colleges surveyed require U.S. government or history, 5 percent economics. It’s possible to go through college without having exposure at all to those subjects.

WM: Do we know that people actually do that?

AN: We have not examined transcripts, so I can’t tell you that. But we do know that the schools themselves have not said, “We think this is important and we’d like you to take these subjects.” So if kids do, they’ve done it on their own volition.

WM: Okay. But we don’t really know how many students have such volition?

AN: We have not looked at specific transcripts. We do know anecdotally that it is possible to take a range of subjects that are all very related so that the kind of breadth that the core curriculum has envisioned–you can avoid it, if you want to.

WM: To move a system where our colleges have cores that are rigorous and valuable–how do we get there? In the United States of America, we don’t have free college for everybody, they’re not government-controlled–how would we get to a place where colleges require more out of students?

AN: The question we’re asking–what will they learn?–goes to a broader question that we hope all trustees will be asking: what is it we expect our graduates to know and be able to do? We think that is the conversation that trustees and administrators and faculty must have to focus on a serious and rigorous academic climate; that discussion is exactly what we need.

WM: You went to Harvard. What rating did your alma mater get?

AN: My alma mater got a D.

WM: What was the reason for that?

AN: Well, it just simply did not require most of the subjects that we include in the core. I think it’s regrettable–indeed, I should say that my alma mater’s former dean also agrees that it’s unfortunate and we have a letter from him on the website called Dean’s Letter which talks about some of the challenges of creating a coherent core.

WM: So he was the dean of the college, but the college itself–

AN: The former dean, and he’s been speaking out pretty regularly about a core curriculum.[Image courtesy the American Council of Trustees and Alumni]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer