Public universities win by focusing on basics

Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 20th, 2010

Take heart, Vol fans. And Tennessee State University Tiger fans. Be of good cheer East Tennessee State University Buccaneers and Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders. The U.S. News & World Report's college rankings are not divinely inspired, nor are they the best predictor of what college kids will actually learn.

The University of Tennessee was ranked the 47th best public university—104th among all national universities—while TSU, ETSU and MTSU got not much love from U.S. News & World Report. As usual, the overall ratings system skewed private and prestigious, expensive and exclusive, which explains why Vanderbilt University came in at No. 17 among all national universities.

But a new ratings system looks at things a different way. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni evaluated colleges based on whether those institutions required students to complete comprehensive courses in subject areas critical to a well-informed, well-rounded education. In other words, ACTA examined whether schools are truly providing a liberal arts education that will make graduates not just good employees, but good citizens.

ACTA evaluated requirements in composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science. Call it back-to-basics, college style. UT and Middle Tennessee State earned Bs in the ACTA ratings while Tennessee State and East Tennessee State earned As. Full results are available at www.whatwilltheylearn.com.

TSU President Melvin Johnson was "thrilled with the findings," which "further validate the breadth of the educational experience" at TSU, the only historically black college in the nation to earn an A from ACTA.

UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said, "Our mission in educating students centers on providing a well-rounded curriculum and a rich student experience to prepare them to compete in an ever-changing, global economy."

Paul Stanton Jr., president of ETSU, said all undergraduates "must complete a common curriculum of general core requirements" in addition to courses in written and oral communication and information technology.

Harry Lewis, the former dean at Harvard College who led the ACTA study, noted that some schools allow almost any course, no matter how esoteric, to count as part of the core curriculum. For instance, at the University of Florida, students can fulfill the humanities requirement with courses in "Amphibious Warfare" or "Philosophy and History of Recreation."

"The venerable and honorable notion of 'general education' has... been reduced to a game," Lewis said.

Vanderbilt got a D from ACTA. Vandy required comprehensive courses in only two of the seven critical subject areas. "It is true that there is more emphasis at Vanderbilt on choice for students than is preferred under the criteria emphasized by this survey," said Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at Vanderbilt. "By allowing leeway in course selection, students are freer to follow their interests as they fulfill the requirements for their degrees."

Sadly, not a single Tennessee school examined by ACTA requires a course in economics. "Economics is needed to understand society," Dr. Sidney McPhee, president of MTSU, told me in a phone interview.

"Education in our country has veered away from the liberal arts," McPhee said. "We've tried to be responsive to the needs of business (in preparing students for the workplace). I hope we don't veer too far from turning out well-rounded individuals who become good citizens."

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