Yale gets an F? New assessment of colleges' required education

WhatWillTheyLearn.com grades more than 700 colleges and universities on what classes they require students to take. Just over a third of the schools earned an A or B in the assessment of required education.

Bob Child/AP Photo/File
In an Oct. 11, 2000 file photo Yale University students and others spend a fall afternoon on Yale University's Cross Campus in New Haven, Conn. In the background is the Sterling Memorial Library, the main library for the university. Yale is one of several US universities that received a failing grade for not requiring students to take enough core courses.

Families looking for colleges that give students a broad foundation in required “core” classes have a new tool available.

WhatWillTheyLearn.com grades more than 700 colleges and universities on their general education requirements.

Just over a third of the schools earned an A or B, meaning that they require certain types of classes in at least four of seven key areas, ranging from literature to economics to mathematics.

“We hope this will be a wake-up call that colleges are asking for lots of money and a major sacrifice by families, but in too many places they have really abdicated their responsibility to direct students to what they need to learn for success after graduation,” says Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonprofit in Washington that promotes such required education and made the assessments.

The “A” schools, of which there were just 16, range from public institutions such as Tennessee State University to private schools such as Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., whose curriculum centers around the “Great Books.” It’s the only school in the study that requires all seven subjects.

Colleges received F’s in the evaluations if they require just one, or none, of the specific courses that ACTA advocates. The 103 schools in this category include the University of California, Berkeley; Amherst College in Massachusetts; and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Students and parents need this kind of assessment tool, Ms. Neal says, because colleges often purport to require a strong general education, but in reading their catalogs it’s difficult to discern which courses students are expected to take. Many schools allow an array of choices – some of which have content that ACTA considers too easy or that focus on a niche aspect of a subject.

One example: At California State University-Monterey Bay, students can satisfy their US history requirement by taking “The History of Rock and Roll,” according to an ACTA report released Monday.

But the problem with ACTA’s grading system is that it’s based on a 1950s model of what college students should learn, says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington.

“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,” Ms. Schneider says. But rather than requiring a broad survey course in, say, US history, which most students get in high school, many colleges expect students to take courses that delve more deeply into some aspect of history, she says.

About 7 out of 10 higher-education institutions now require some study of world cultures or global perspectives, Schneider says, something for which ACTA does not give credit in its grades.

Some schools receiving low grades by ACTA’s measure do try to ensure that students get exposure to a range of important disciplines – just in a different way.

At Ursinus, a liberal arts college in Collegeville, Pa., for instance, all freshmen take the year-long Common Intellectual Experience course. It draws on an array of literature and historical texts, and students are asked to “write and reflect on the great questions of human existence, like love, friendship, happiness, life, death, God and nature,” according to the school’s website.

Four out of 10 institutions surveyed by Schneider’s group in 2009 say they are incorporating this kind of common learning experience.

The Ursinus course was designed just over a decade ago. Faculty raised concerns about students putting off some required “distribution” classes until their senior year, when they no longer would serve a foundational purpose. Those classes – in subjects such as science, language, quantitative reasoning, and humanities – are still required.

Despite Ursinus’s requirements, the school is given an F based on ACTA’s criteria.

Allowing students to choose from a menu of courses to fulfill the distribution makes sense, says Ursinus politics professor Paul Stern. “There’s a way of thinking that’s distinctive to mathematics and science,” he says. “Realizing we’re not going to produce people equally adept at the technical aspects of science or mathematics, we [still] want them to have experience thinking in that way.”

Here’s the list of core subjects upon which a school's grade is based. An A means the school requires students to take at least six of the seven subjects.

Composition (focused on grammar, style, and argument)

Literature (a broad survey course)

Foreign language (intermediate, or 3 semesters of college-level study)

US government or history (a broad survey course)

Economics (covering fundamentals such as micro- or macroeconomics)

Mathematics (beyond intermediate algebra)

Natural or physical science (preferably with a lab component)

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