New assessment grades colleges on basis of curriculum requirements

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.

Another organization disagrees with premise
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.

A different approach
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.”

List of core subjects
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)

Carleton gets a D; U of M-Twin Cities, B
So, how did Minnesota colleges and universities do? None of the 18 Minnesota schools in the rating flunked, but none received A’s either. In fact, eight D’s were distributed to some of Minnesota’s liberal arts colleges, including Carleton, Macalester, Gustavus Adolphus and University of Minnesota-Morris.

Just three B’s were awarded in the state: to St. Olaf College, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of St. Thomas. Seven C’s went to public institutions, including Bemidji State, Winona State, and the Mankato and Moorhead campuses of Minnesota State.

Senior researcher David Azerrad of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out that just because a school gets a poor grade in this rating doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a good school.

“What we are saying is that they do a poor job of providing their students with a coherent core,” Azerrad told MinnPost. “By contrast, other schools do better and we are pleased to be able to get past the reputation to give parents a tool they need.”

This link takes you to the list of 18 schools rated in Minnesota. Links to the ratings of individual colleges also are available on the list.

MinnPost’s Casey Selix contributed to this article.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Larry Schwartz on 08/17/2010 - 01:36 pm.

    A better way to phrase “Seven C’s went to public institutions, including Bemidji State, Winona State, and the Mankato and Moorhead campuses of Minnesota State.” would be “Seven C’s went to public institutions, including the state universities at Bemidji, Mankato, Moorhead and Winona.”

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