Measuring Core Requirements

Ashley Thorne

Today the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released the fifth edition of its annual report What Will They Learn?, which grades colleges and universities on the robustness of their core curricula.

Colleges get an A if they require students to take a course in at least six of the seven core areas ACTA identifies: science, mathematics, composition, literature, United States government or history, foreign language, and economics. Out of the 1,091 institutions ACTA surveyed, only 22 got an A. These include Pepperdine University, U.S. Military Academy, the University of Georgia, and Colorado Christian University.

Many colleges and universities in the United States do not have a liberal arts focus, and ACTA doesn’t survey technical schools, medical schools, technology institutes, community colleges, or primarily online universities. Institutions of higher education such as MIT, the Pratt Institute in New York (a school primarily for artists), DeVry University, and the University of Phoenix are thus excluded.

But the thousand plus schools in What Will They Learn represent a major cohort of what we all think of as the traditional colleges and universities from whom most high school students get brochures in the mail. These are public universities and colleges with a stated liberal arts mission. ACTA has topped each school’s page on the What Will They Learn site with an excerpt from the university’s own statements about the education it provides. For example, heading ACTA’s page for Champlain College, which John Tierney praised this week in the Atlantic as his “ideal college,” is the following:

Champlain College says, "The Core curriculum at Champlain College merges two distinct approaches to traditional academics - a comprehensive liberal arts program and interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The result is a rich experience that combines academic rigor, self-exploration, and local and global awareness, preparing twenty-first century students to live rich lives and enjoy satisfying careers."

Champlain, however, gets an F in What Will They Learn, according to which Champlain has only one firm requirement, in composition. While there are distribution requirements in other areas, students can satisfy these by testing out, substituting their high school-level work, or taking courses outside those particular subject areas.

What Will They Learn surveys curricular requirements and the cost of attending each college. The new edition also includes 4-year graduation rates and freedom of speech levels (using ratings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). An intriguing pattern that ACTA has observed is that the more expensive a school is, the less likely it is to have a strong core curriculum.

That observation holds true for Bowdoin College ($44,118 tuition), the small liberal arts college in Maine that was the subject of NAS’s major 2013 study What Does Bowdoin Teach?. Bowdoin gets an F from ACTA for its lack of curricular requirements. The College once had a core curriculum but abolished it in 1969. In fact, from 1970 to 1983, Bowdoin had no general education requirements. After this the college instated distribution requirements, but as NAS’s study says, “Bowdoin shifted philosophically to the idea that the student’s freedom to choose his own path was the right principle for ordering a liberal education.” An education at Bowdoin today is largely shaped by the student’s choices from a growing number of topical electives.

The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station, the subjects of another recent NAS study, Recasting History, each got Bs for requiring courses in four out of the seven core areas. Both have a requirement in the category “U.S. Government or History,” and indeed, the state of Texas in 1955 enacted a legislative requirement for all students in public universities to complete two semesters of courses in U.S. history.

Our report, Recasting History, was the culmination of a two-year study to learn what kinds of courses were considered by these two universities as satisfying this requirement, and what texts were assigned in each course.

We found that course readings focused inordinately on social history with emphases on race, class, and gender, to the neglect of other areas of history such as intellectual, scientific, military, and diplomatic history. We also found that at UT Austin, narrowly tailored topical courses were being used to satisfy the U.S. history requirement. Thus, students could take a course such as “Mexican American Women, 1910-present” or “Black Power Movement” and graduate without taking a college-level comprehensive survey of American history.

For colleges with a stated liberal arts mission, a core curriculum (or strict distribution requirements) can provide students with a foundation in broad knowledge. But a structured curriculum doesn’t guarantee a quality education. To assess quality it is necessary to know not only whether a course in a particular area is required, but how that course is taught: the texts used, the effectiveness of the teacher, the shape of the in-class discussion, the rigor of the assignments and tests, etc.

One thing a core curriculum can provide is a sense of intellectual community. Because so few colleges offer one, students have little academic experience to share in common with one another. Andrew Delbanco wrote in his 2012 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, that “As a significant reality in the contemporary landscape of higher education, the university as community barely exists.” One superficial solution to this problem that colleges have taken up is common reading programs, often for an incoming new class of freshmen, which assign one book for the class to read that year.

While it is a good thing for colleges to promote reading, these programs fall far short of the heft and depth that is possible through a well-rounded core curriculum. And while the presence of core requirements indicates that students will take courses in key areas, we need to know the way in which the courses are taught in order to know what kind of education students are getting.

But identifying core requirements is an important step in assessing quality, and ACTA is to be commended for creating a one-stop resource showing the status of 1,000+ colleges and universities. High school students and their families would do well to visit What Will They Learn as they evaluate college options. They may even find a good match in one of the highlighted “Hidden Gems.”  

Image: Columbia College

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