ore than 40 years have passed since two Cornell University professors posed a question to its president, a question that could be fairly asked at any of a number of schools: “If we prove to you that an Arts and Sciences student can now receive a B.A. degree at Cornell, and thus be presumed to have acquired a liberal education, without having been required to read a line of Plato, the Bible, Shakespeare, Marx or Einstein, would you consider this to be evidence that there is a crisis in education at Cornell?”

They never received a reply, but their fears have been confirmed by nearly every subsequent campus development across the nation. What Will They Learn?, a survey of over 1,100 colleges and universities published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), details the ascendancy of the trivial over the serious, the chaotic over the coherent, in our institutions of higher learning. Before investing years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars in a particular college, students and their parents would be wise to read the report.

What Will They Learn? assesses the core curriculum in American higher education by concentrating on seven subjects: composition, literature, intermediate foreign language, U.S. history or government, economics, college-level mathematics, and natural science. It then assigns grades to colleges and universities based on how many of these subjects they require: A for six or seven; B, four or five; C, three; D, two; and F, one or zero.

This year’s results, laid out in the report’s seventh iteration, are dismal. Only 24 schools receive an A grade, while 64% require three or fewer subjects. Large majorities of our colleges are content to award bachelor’s degrees to students who haven’t taken a single course in literature, foreign language, American history and government, or economics. 

Grade # of Schools Percentage
A 24 2%
B 371 33%
C 342 31%
D 268 24%
F 103 9%


Subject # of Schools Percentage
Composition 905 82%
Literature 398 36%
For. Language 141 13%
U.S. Hist./Gov. 200 18%
Economics 34 3%
Mathematics 658 59%
Science 962 87%

What Will They Learn? analyzes the perverse economics of higher education, where F-rated institutions charge nearly $33,000 per year in tuition on average, over 38% more than the average A-rated school. Students increasingly leave college lacking both marketable skills and basic civic knowledge. 63% of employers surveyed said graduates lack the competence to succeed in a global economy; over a quarter thought graduates’ writing abilities deficient. One-third of college graduates could not identify—in a multiple-choice survey—the Bill of Rights as a group of constitutional amendments; nearly half couldn’t choose the correct term lengths for members of Congress; and 10% thought television’s “Judge Judy” was a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

In the prevalent “cafeteria-style” curricula, students choose from a list of courses, sometimes numbering in the thousands, that relate neither to one another or to any coherent notion of what educated people know. Specialized courses pander to students’ interest in popular culture, reinforcing their ignorance and inoculating them against rigorous study of the challenging and timeless.

Clearly, we need a renewed commitment to a foundational general education curriculum. The frequent boast that “skills-based” instruction obviates “content-based” learning rationalizes a curriculum that is fashionable but insubstantial. In place of literature and history, colleges increasingly require “critical reading,” and teach “quantitative reasoning” in lieu of a core mathematics or science course. This approach falsely assumes that skills can be taught in a vacuum, that content-based systems are antiquated or superfluous. Only in the less forgiving post-college job market do graduates realize how much time and money they wasted getting barely educated.

Too often college ranking systems ignore the material actually taught on America’s campuses. When the most popular such systems focus on the reputation and endowment size of universities, it should not surprise parents, students, and policymakers that colleges neglect teaching in favor of institutional marketing. These systems rank institutions’ financial and reputational stability, variables that have very little to do with the quality of undergraduate education.

In Academically Adrift (2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa showed that 45% of college students from the class of 2009 “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their first two years of college, and 36% “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years. The corrective is no mystery. If science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are increasingly important in a world transformed by technology, require college-level mathematics, not a rehash of the basic arithmetic that should have been mastered in high school. If multiculturalism is important, require competency in a foreign language. If basic writing skills are important, establish demanding requirements in expository writing. Students and parents need to choose colleges based on academic rigor. As fiduciaries, boards of trustees need to demand serious academic policies, to repudiate curricula that offer high school students a four-year vacation at Club Ed. The alternative is a future in which American higher education’s greatest distinction is its startling cost.