Why College Students Don't Learn Much
"What Will They Learn?" asks the American Council of Trustees and Alumni's (ACTA) annual study of college core requirements. And given what we uncovered this year, it is no surprise that -- as famously documented by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses -- many students graduate without having learned much of anything.
Our methodology is simple. We look at whether an institution requires its students to study seven basic subjects: literature, U.S. government or history, foreign language, mathematics, economics, science, and composition. And what have we found? Only 13 percent of the nearly 1,100 schools ACTA evaluated require the equivalent of three semesters of foreign-language study. With all the national buzz about our need for more STEM education, fewer than two-thirds of schools require college-level math. In a globalized economy frequently beset by economic crises, just 3 percent require even a single course in basic economics.
In total, only 23 schools require at least six of these seven subjects.
What are students taking instead? There is a cornucopia of the enticing and nugatory. For example, at Harvard, students can fulfill their literature requirement with "American Dreams from Scarface to Easy Rider." At the University of Colorado-Boulder, students can take "Horror Films and American Culture" or "America Through Basketball" in lieu of an American-history course. The absence of strong general-education requirements has allowed too many students to replace intellectual rigor with the academic equivalent of junk food.
This curricular decline comes at a cost, producing citizens unable to compete globally or exercise responsible citizenship. Recently, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) surveyed its member nations to determine the level of quantitative and verbal literacy that adults demonstrate. While America spends substantially more per student on higher education than any other OECD nation, we are far from the top when it comes to performance. The literacy level of four-year college graduates is below the average of our international peers. And numerous surveys have confirmed that American college graduates have stunning gaps in their knowledge. Nearly 62 percent could not identify the correct length of congressional terms. Thirty-nine percent didn't know Franklin Roosevelt was president during World War II.
And while the purpose of a liberal education is not merely to produce effective workers, employers have repeatedly emphasized that they wish college graduates possessed greater knowledge of foreign languages, science, and civics.
Given these facts, why are colleges consistently failing to provide the broad-based liberal-arts education Americans need? There is plenty of blame to go around. Students and parents have looked for prestige and reputation instead of educational quality in making college choices. Professors often prefer to teach courses in niche subjects that interest them, rather than in the subjects that are vital to students' success. Administrators use open curricula and catchy course titles to attract applicants in the fierce competition for students and their tuition dollars. And trustees fail to exercise oversight over their institutions.
The time has come to say enough is enough. It is time for every higher-ed stakeholder to reaffirm the value of a strong core curriculum. Students, parents, and donors need to vote with their feet and wallets, attending institutions and handing over money to schools that provide a solid curricular foundation. Professors need to remember that they are charged with molding informed citizens as well as with conducting research. Administrators and trustees need to insist on a course of study that will ensure every student learns the essential subjects that will prepare him or her for career and community. And policymakers need to insist that institutions which receive taxpayer dollars are equipping young people to be productive members of society.
The time for mediocrity is over. America's colleges and universities have been called the "envy of the world." If we restore the core, they can keep that moniker.
Michael Poliakoff is vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.