ACTA Launches Guide on College Curricula

Ashley Thorne

NAS is pleased to recognize a new website called, launched today by our sister organization, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). What Will They Learn is a free resource for students, parents, alumni, donors, and policymakers who want to know what kinds of courses are required at particular colleges and universities. It introduces a new way to rank institutions—not by their prestige, graduation rates, or qualifications as a party school, but by the strength of their curricula.  

The guide has chosen seven academic areas as core subjects: composition, literature, foreign language, economics, mathematics, and science. It reviews 127 colleges and universities and rates them according to the number of core subjects they require. For example, the United States Military Academy gets an “A” from What Will They Learn because it requires six of the core subjects; Harvard gets a “D” with only two subjects required; and Rice University, requiring none of them, fails flat out. Only seven institutions have made it to the “A” list so far, and only two have an economics requirement.

Anne Neal, president of ACTA, commented on the poor results in a press release:

This study demonstrates that our colleges and universities have abdicated their responsibility to direct their students to the most important subjects. No eighteen-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.

Visitors to the website can compare multiple schools and search the database by state, university name, or core subject. They can also view a list of schools that charge $30,000 or more in tuition—the implication is that colleges are charging too much money for too little actual substance.

What Will They Learn explains in the FAQ section that a common curriculum is important for several reasons. First, “Familiarity with the most influential events, ideas, and works provides context for thinking critically about the more narrow, specialized topics students will encounter as upperclassmen.” Second, employers are looking for graduates who can read, write, and speak well, but a college degree today is no proof that its recipient possesses these skills. Third, a shared curriculum can “foster a ‘common conversation’ among students, connecting them more closely with faculty and with each other.” And finally, students who missed core subjects in high school can learn them in college and those who did study them in high school can go deeper in their understanding.

With the launch of the website, ACTA has also release a 55-page “Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities,” which explores American college curricula more in-depth. NAS will be paying attention to What Will They Learn as it conducts further research and continues to develop its database. We salute ACTA for creating this unique guide, and we look forward to how it may change attitudes about what makes a college a good one.

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