A's for public universities, F's for privates

Washington Post | Class Struggle, August 16th, 2010

Sure, summer is nice, but for many of us education wonks, it is a big bore. Want to add some excitement to your beachside/mountain/TV room/overseas or pitiful workaholic existence?

At the next gathering of family or friends, or better yet wherever you are doing your drinking, ask why a major organization promoting the improvement of higher education has just given Yale, Northwestern and the University of California at Berkeley Fs on its latest college rankings. When they turn in your direction tell them the same organization gave As to Brooklyn College, Kennesaw State and East Tennessee State.

The perpetrator of these outrageous assessments is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. This admittedly old-fashioned group has been trying for some time to get colleges to require that students learn something important about writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history or government, literature and foreign languages before they graduate.

The council researchers have read all of the impressive university Web sites that promise students will be required to take a core of subjects that introduce them to the wisdom of all or most of those disciplines. But then the researchers look at the course lists and discover you can get the required lit credit for a seminar on comic books and the required science credit for a tour of Boston harbor.

The council's latest report on the unserious nature of general education in colleges, "What Will They Learn?," rates 714 four-year institutions and makes these discoveries:

More than 60 percent get Cs or worse for requiring only three or fewer courses in the subjects above. Only 77 percent have an English composition requirement. Less than five percent require an economics course. Less than 20 percent require a broad survey course in U.S. government or history. Only a third require intermediate competence in a foreign language, or successful completion of a course at that level.

The report even came up with something new that I had not seen in earlier council ventings on this subject. They discovered that public universities on average were doing a much better job than private ones. More than 90 percent of the publics require composition and science, compared to 55 percent and 75 percent, respectively, of the privates. Expressed in dollars, an important subject for the families paying the bills, average tuition and fees at schools that got an A on the council's list was $13,200 in 2009, compared to $28,200 for schools that got an F on the list.

"At a time when the challenges of the modern workforce—not to mention engaged citizenship—make a broad general education more important than ever, far too many of our institutions are failing to deliver," the council report concludes.

Here is the grade spread, based on As for schools that require at least six of the seven subjects, four or five subjects for Bs, three for Cs, two for Ds and one or none for Fs:

A—16 colleges, or 2 percent

B—251, or 35 percent

C—209, or 29 percent

D—135, or 19 percent

E—103, or 14 percent

Here are all the schools that got As, and a sampling of those in the other categories:

As—Baylor, CUNY-Brooklyn College, East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State, Lamar, Midwestern State, St. John's (both Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses), Tennessee State, Texas A&M (both College Station and Corpus Christi campuses), Thomas Aquinas, Air Force Academy, West Point, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and University of Dallas.

Bs—Alabama State, Auburn, BU, eleven different Cal State campuses, Christopher Newport, Claremont McKenna, Duke, Morehouse, NYU, Ohio State, Scripps, Annapolis, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Washington & Lee, Wellesley.

Cs—William & Mary, Dartmouth, Howard, Pomona, Princeton, Spelman, Stanford, UCLA, Maryland.

Ds—Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Oregon State, Reed, Rhodes, Temple, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, U-Va.

Fs—Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Cornell, Grinnell, Guilford, Hampshire, Johns Hopkins, Occidental, Rice, Yale.

Look up your school. The whole list is available. Perhaps you can share your feelings on this, or your stories of courses that were less than met the eye. That student who passed his science requirment with a harbor tour was, for instance, me.

Signup to Receive ACTA's Newsletter & Email Updates