College Ranking Focuses on What Students Learn

Parents and their high school children have long revered the various college ranking authorities such as U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review and Fiske Guide to Colleges. But a new approach to ranking colleges called What Will They Learn? provides collegebound students with a new way of evaluating the myriad colleges from which to choose.

What Will They Learn? is a project of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges and universities. Launched in 1995, ACTA works with alumni, donors, trustees and education leaders across the country to “support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.”

The premise of ACTA’s alternate ranking system is that the best judge of a college’s value lies in the schooling its students receive, specifically in seven key areas: English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science. Study of these areas is believed to provide the broadbased skills and knowledge students need to succeed in the global marketplace. ACTA warns that students are falling behind their global counterparts when they graduate with significant gaps in their knowledge, which stands to affect our country’s future competitiveness and innovation.

Harry R. Lewis, former dean of Harvard College who penned the Dean’s Letter on the What Will They Learn? website, offered this insight. “At its best, general education is about the unity of knowledge, not about distributed knowledge. Not about spreading courses around, but about making connections between different ideas. Not about the freedom to combine random ingredients, but about joining an ancient lineage of the learned and wise. And it has a goal, too: producing an enlightened, selfreliant citizenry, pluralistic and diverse but united by democratic values.”

“The crisis in higher education is about more than money – it’s about what we are paying for. And when it comes to ensuring graduates possess the basic skills and knowledge they need to succeed, universities are shortchanging students,” said ACTA President Anne D. Neal, speaking at the National Press Club. “Since when is do-it-yourself an educational philosophy?”

Mel Elfin, founding editor of U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, praised the website as “an invaluable and unique additional resource for parents,” and The Wall Street Journal called its focus on education “admirable.”

What Will They Learn? ranks colleges on how they educate students in the seven key areas:

English Composition – Considered a “fundamental requirement for effective participation in the workplace and civic society,” clear and grammatically accurate written communication is a must for today’s college graduates. Therefore, schools receiving high marks require students to take a writing class focusing on grammar, style, clarity and argument, one taught by instructors trained to evaluate and teach writing.

Literature – Exposure to a variety of literary styles and forms reveals a diversity of human thought and experience that is important in a global society. Careful study of texts also trains students to read attentively as well as analyze and reflect on what they have read, skills that teach students how to think critically. Schools receive credit for literature if they require a literature survey course such as British or Latin American literature.

Foreign Language – Operating under the premise that if one can speak another’s language, insight and understanding will be heightened as a result of an awareness of different cultural perspectives. In an increasingly interconnected
world, competency in a foreign language is also highly prized by employers. Schools receive credit for foreign language if they require competency at the intermediate level, defined as at least three semesters of college-level study in any foreign language, three years of high school work or an appropriate examination score.

U.S. Government or History – There is no doubt that an understanding of American history and government is critical to the development of active and informed citizens, and ACTA believes that colleges and universities must ensure that students have a working knowledge of the history and governing institutions of their country. Schools receive credit for U.S. government or history if they require a course in either American history or government with enough breadth to give a broad sweep of American history and institutions.

Economics – While economics is not generally considered part of a liberal arts core curriculum, understanding the principles that govern the allocation of goods and services and the fundamentals of the marketplace are essential in an increasingly connected global economy. Schools receive credit for economics if they require a course covering basic economic principles, preferably an introductory micro- or macroeconomics course taught by faculty from the economics or business departments.

Mathematics – Mastery of language allows one to experience the world through words and  image; math provides a fundamentally different way of apprehending the world and is imperative for studying the natural world and the social sciences. Practical applications abound as well, from evaluating contracts in the workplace and managing personal finances to evaluating statistics read in the newspaper. Schools receive credit for mathematics if they require a college-level course in mathematics beyond the level of intermediate algebra. Logic classes may count if they are focused on abstract logic. Computer science courses count if they involve programming or advanced study.

Science – Quantitative reasoning is a skill that comes through the study of science and
helps students master the basic principles of scientific experimentation and observation. In addition, science courses build the analytical and critical thinking skills that today’s employers and the world at large demand. Schools receive credit for natural or physical science if they require a course in biology, geology, chemistry, physics, or environmental science, preferably with a laboratory component.

Currently, the site ranks more than 700 schools, which collectively teach approximately six million undergraduates, or about 55 percent of all four-year undergraduate students in America. To assign a grade, researchers conducted an analysis of each school’s general education requirements listed in online course catalogs as well as the school’s six-year graduation rates. What Will They Learn? then provided grades based on how many of each course students were required to take: A – six-seven core subjects required; B – four-five core subjects required; C – three core subjects required; D – two core subjects required; F – zero-one core subjects required.

Of all the schools reviewed, the distribution of grades was alarming in that very few schools received top marks. About two-thirds of all institutions received a C or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects, and only 16 schools made the A-list: A – 16 (2 percent); B – 251 (35 percent); C – 209 (29 percent); D – 135 (19 percent); F – 103 (14 percent).

The A-ranked schools include: Baylor University, City University of New York-Brooklyn College, East Tennessee State University, Kennesaw State University, Lamar University, Midwestern State University, St. John’s College (Md.), St. John’s College (N.M.), Tennessee State University, Texas A&M University-College Station, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Thomas Aquinas College, United States Air Force Academy, United States Military Academy, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, University of Dallas, and University of Texas-Austin.

The majority of schools did well in requiring courses in three of the seven knowledge areas: science, English composition and math. The majority of schools did not do well in requiring courses in foreign language, literature, U.S. government or history and economics: science – 605 (85 percent); composition – 553 (77 percent); math – 436 (61 percent); foreign language – 236 (33 percent); literature – 157 (22 percent); U.S. government/history – 139 (19 percent); economics – 25 (4 percent). Other findings include:

Paying a lot doesn’t necessarily get you a lot: Average tuition at the more than 100 F-schools is $28,200 (2009 figures). At the 16 A-schools, it’s $13,200. A total of 178 institutions have the dubious honor of being in ACTA’s “$30,000-plus club,” which lists schools that charged more than $30,000 in tuition and fees for the 2009-10 school year.

Public institutions are doing a relatively better job than private institutions of ensuring students graduate with some of the basic skills and knowledge they need than private institutions: More than half (52 percent) of all privates receive a D or an F for requiring two or fewer subjects, while a little under half (44 percent) of all publics receive a B or better for requiring four or more subjects.

When comparing top schools within the U.S. News & World Report rankings, more than half of the top 20 national universities and liberal arts colleges received an F, yet students at these schools typically pay almost $40,000 in tuition. And private institutions, which are generally more expensive, had poor showings. Fifty-two percent received a D or an F for requiring two or fewer courses – only 55 percent require English composition, and only 46 percent require college-level math.

It is important to note that this alternate ranking system is not intended to offer a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of a university, nor does it place any value on prestige or reputation. Instead, it is placing an emphasis on how committed a school is to a broad-based general education curriculum. Unique among the major college guides, What Will They Learn? rankings were developed based on applying objective criteria to institutions’ curricula. The desire is that, armed with this knowledge, students can identify schools that are committed to these core subjects. The grading system also serves to encourage institutions to implement changes to core curriculum standards

With a new way to evaluate colleges at their disposal, ACTA believes students and parents will “vote with their wallets” for those institutions that provide a sound foundation at a good value. While the short-term impact of What Will They Learn? is yet to be measured, the economic premise of supply and demand could very well change the face of higher education for the long term.