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

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. 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.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | August 16, 2010; 12:01 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Brooklyn College gets an A, Yale given an F on new college list, colleges require few courses, only 77 percent require composition, only five percent require economics  
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Comments

Jay, maybe some of the private universities don't have to teach some of the courses that the public ones do because their students have already met the requirements or are quite capable of the work before they enter college.

I do think the high value placed on the ivy league schools and other private schools at the expense of good public ones is out of line, though.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | August 16, 2010 1:58 AM | Report abuse

Can we spell AGENDA? Because as a Harvard grad who remembers very distinctly having been required to complete a foreign language requirement, composition requirement, and science requirement, at a minimum, I went and checked my alma mater's website for their current graduation requirements. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni claim that Harvard only meets two of their 6 criteria by requiring courses in composition and science. However, by my CONSERVATIVE count, Harvard meets at least 3, and possibly 5. Harvard does require students to achieve intermediate proficiency in a foreign language, it just doesn't use the word "intermediate", phrasing it instead in terms of scores achieved on certain standardized tests or courses taken at the university level. While there is no requirement for a basic U.S. history survey course, literature course, or math course, there is a requirement that students take courses in the category "U.S. and the World"( mostly history courses focused on particular themes or periods), "Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning" (math and logic courses), and "Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding" (mostly literature courses). I'm betting that a lot of the "surprise" underperformers failed for similar reasons - i.e., not squaring firmly with the Council's narrow preferences.

I would agree that the "Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning" requirement is generally a poor substitute for a sound grounding in statistics or other basic math. However, I would suggest that at Harvard and other elite schools where a large number of students come in with AP or IB credits in U.S. History, English Language/Literature, and Calculus or Statistics, simply requiring survey courses as a check off is counterproductive. Had Harvard required courses in exactly the narrow format that the Council apparently prefers, with no broader requirement, I would have completely tested out of all but possibly the economics requirement based on my AP credits. I would never have been required to expand myself academically in areas outside my major at the actual university level (and university-level non-survey courses are very, very different than AP or IB courses).

My impression is that the Council isn't being honest or fair here and that the outcome of their study was predetermined.

Posted by: burntnorton | August 16, 2010 7:24 AM | Report abuse

There is so much wrong with this list it is silly.
First, as the other poster noted... most of the "elite" universities cater to students that already have this level of work mastered.
Second, the researchers didn't seem to do their due diligence here. Both my wife and I went to one of those big name schools on the "F" list, and while there wasn't a school-wide core curriculum, each department had their own requirements. I was required to take math, science, composition -- good for a C. She had to take math, science, composition and foreign language -- good or a B. Friends in another major had to take math, economics, literature, composition, history and foreign language -- that's an A. It seems to me that these ratings are designed mainly to "tear down" highly regarded institutions, not to provide any real insight.
Finally, I take exception on the six "subjects" that they require. Why is a school better if it requires students to study that which 17th century aristocrats thought was worthwhile? Is a better engineer one that can quote Shakespeare? Is a better diplomat one that understands multi-variable calculus? Does a knowledge of organic chemistry make one a better musician?

Posted by: someguy100 | August 16, 2010 7:30 AM | Report abuse

You might want to edit a sentence in this article: "They discovered that public universities on average were doing a much better job than public ones." Seventh paragraph, second sentence. What school did you go to again?

Posted by: GJC2 | August 16, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Some degree programs can't fit in the courses mentioned. My music degree already required me to take 18 - 22 credits a semester just to get what I needed in my main content area. To add the courses listed would have required a 5th year which I could not have afforded.

Posted by: musiclady | August 16, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Even if we eliminate from consideration the 50 or so highly selective institutions in this country plus those that scored "A" or "B" in this survey, that still leaves about 400 schools. This is a majority of U.S. colleges and universities that are not very rigorous about requiring undergraduates to take on a well-rounded and substantial course load.

This easily explains why there are so many college graduates running around who can't write a serious piece of more than 300 words, don't understand the limitations of public polling much ;ess define a standard deviation, and who often confuse cosmetology with cosmology.

These college graduate graduates will never put a man on the moon and should not be given the opportunity to even try.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | August 16, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

good catch, GJC2. I blame it on my D-level education. I will fix it now.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | August 16, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

When I went to college there was a slew of courses that were required. Contrary to comments these were not make up courses since I had foreign language courses in high school and still had a foreign language requirement in college.

Back then the idea was to have those in college to have a well rounded education in liberal arts colleges and introduce students to areas that were not covered in high schools to understand a new area of academic study.

Even today this is true and the AP courses in high schools have really nothing to do with academic areas of study that these courses pretend to cover. In my day these courses would have been considered absurd with the idea of a high school teacher replacing a college teacher with a PHD and years of study.

One also had back then the strange idea that individuals did not always know which area they were going to major in, and a major was not necessary until at least after the first year of college and one still had time to switch majors.

Of course back then a business college would have been viewed as something equivalent to a school to train you in plumbing.

But of course back then there was this strange idea that one went to college to develop their mind and sharpen their ability to think.

It is great that this is no longer necessary and that those that enter college and universities already have fully developed minds and do not have to sharpen their ability to think. The high schools today certainly do a far better job than they did in my day.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 16, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Can we spell AGENDA? Because as a Harvard grad who remembers very distinctly having been required to complete a foreign language requirement,and science requirement, at a minimum,...

I would have completely tested out of all but possibly the economics requirement based on my AP credits.

Posted by: burntnorton
..................................
Believe it or not in the 1960's colleges and universities actually wanted students to get a full rounded education and to be exposed to different ideas. Public schools could not cover the material of many academic areas since the purpose of public schools was to provide an education to allow Americans to read, write, and do arithmetic.

College was considered at that time for the above average in intelligence or those who had the financial ability to pay for a private education even if they only had average intelligence.

The idea that every one in the United States needed a college education for decent employment at that time would have been viewed as absurd since the colleges and universities would have seen this as simply reducing the colleges and universities to the levels of the high schools.

Now we have American students entering colleges and universities that simply see this as an extension of high school where trite and common place ideas were taught to the average high school student.

These students are so pedestrian that they can not conceive of colleges or universities as places where the mind and intellect can be free and reach for the new.

Perhaps they are right and the colleges and universities are now simply places of the trite and common place ideas for the average of the high schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 16, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

I absolutely agree that Berkeley's standards, at least, are shameful. It says clearly right there on their liberal arts degree web page that no math is required if you got 600 or higher on the SAT (which means everyone except LEP students is out of math), and the LEP students just have to take one course.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | August 16, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Some degree programs can't fit in the courses mentioned. My music degree already required me to take 18 - 22 credits a semester just to get what I needed in my main content area. To add the courses listed would have required a 5th year which I could not have afforded.

Posted by: musiclady
............................
My college required 3 credits in music from every student, which opened to me the beauty of classical music.

College and universities need to be more than trade schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 16, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I don't think anyone is arguing that high schools, even good high schools with lots of AP/IB courses, prepare students to think at the university level. I, at least, said the opposite. People are just challenging the notion, perpetuated by the Council that authored this report, that requiring six relatively narrowly defined courses will do the job any better than the distribution requirements that many of the "failing" schools have substituted for more rigid core curriculums in recent years. An AP course in U.S. History does not truly train students in university-level historical studies, but neither does a university-level survey course and it's hard to see how requiring students to cover the same basic material in a university survey course is better than requiring them to study a more limited subset of the material in greater depth in a non-survey course.

In any event, the Council's agenda has nothing to do with producing university graduates who have sharpened their minds in a broader variety of disciplines at the university level. The Council does not make a distinction between a university that allows one to test out of any of its proposed core requirements (via a competency test or AP/IB test scores) and one that requires its students to actually take university classes in those subjects. There are serious arguments to be made for each approach, but to judge a college or university like Harvard, Amherst, Yale, etc. as "failing" because it chooses to use distribution requirements that apply to everyone, rather than institute a core curriculum that at least half of its students would largely test out of, is disingenuous.

Posted by: burntnorton | August 16, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

I absolutely agree that Berkeley's standards, at least, are shameful. It says clearly right there on their liberal arts degree web page that no math is required if you got 600 or higher on the SAT (which means everyone except LEP students is out of math), and the LEP students just have to take one course.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier
................................
I wish every college student was forced to take two mathematics classes in an attempt to undo the damage that was done by the public schools of turning one of the most intellectually demanding and exciting area of study into one of the most boring.

Also one needs to get away from only average adjuncts teaching in 101 courses in colleges and universities.

A class in elementary logic should also be a requirement for every student to also undo some of the damage done by the high schools.

AP courses should not be allowed in place of college courses.

The colleges and universities:
We believe that certain courses are essential for a college education and require these courses for all students.

Students though can substitute for these classes taught by college teachers with advanced degrees in their subject, courses given by high school teachers without advanced degrees.

I remember actually going to a college where an adjunct with simply a B.A. teaching a 101 class was actually considered an abnormality.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 16, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack,

I don't think anyone is arguing that high schools, even good high schools with lots of AP/IB courses, prepare students to think at the university level. I, at least, said the opposite. People are just challenging the notion, perpetuated by the Council that authored this report, that requiring six relatively narrowly defined courses will do the job any better than the distribution requirements that many of the "failing" schools have substituted for more rigid core curriculums in recent years.
.................................
I agree with you and do not think much of this report card.

I just think the old system with tons of required classes was better.

But colleges and universities then had teachers with years of study in their field that actually would teach 101 classes in the liberal arts.

I guess the colleges and universities have really simply become an extension of high schools.

We seem to keep going higher and higher and it will shortly be that a graduate degree is necessary to indicate that an individual has enough common sense and intelligence for employment.

Sometimes I think the Federal government should just give a test after high school for a certification for employers in reading, arithmetic, and common sense. This would be considered in the United States as suitable for employment instead of a college degree.

Then we could set up two tiers of colleges and universities in the United States. Tier 1 would be for those who passed the test and want to go to college. Tier 2 would be for those who failed the test.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 16, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Jay, here's what ACTA has to say about questions regarding the "basics":

Some have asked:

Aren’t many of these subjects already covered in high school?

ACTA's response:

Some of them, like Math, are "covered" in grade school. Even if students completed a lower-level class on the same subject in high school, a college-level class should be something quite different. "Higher" education is predicated on the concept of attainment of "higher" skills that prepare a graduate for informed citizenship and effectiveness in a competitive workplace. K-12 education has looked to higher education to set standards that create a meaningful continuum from secondary into post-secondary education. If done well, a college core can help students build on what they have learned before.

Why did so many elite and highly selective universities receive low marks on providing a core curriculum?

ACTA's Response:

Traditionally, the general education curriculum was subject to two limits. First, core courses were relatively few in number, and second, they were general in scope. The result was a curriculum that consisted of a small number of broad classes, like "Great Works of Philosophy" or "Landmarks of Literature." Courses typically covered the most important events, ideas, or works known to mankind—material considered essential for an educated person.

While most colleges today claim they are providing a strong core curriculum, in fact, they do so in name only. Instead of a limited number of courses, broad-based in focus, institutions now typically demand that students take courses in several wide subject areas—the so-called distribution requirements.

Posted by: kitten2 | August 16, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Also, ACTA states that those universities that allow incoming freshman to test out of college math requirements based upon SAT or ACT scores were not rated highly.

As someone here already stated, UC-Berkeley allows for liberal arts majors to use SAT scores to avoid taking more math. As we all know, SAT scores only predict success as a freshman in college...based upon Algebra 1&2, Geometry, and basic arithmetic. When I went to a public univeristy, the bare minimum to graduate was College Algebra to Pr-Calculus; And for science/computers/engineering students it was Calculus.

Sorry, but Algebra 1&2, Geometry, and basic math is considered "developmental" even at the community college level. So, where is the COLLEGE LEVEL math, please?

Posted by: kitten2 | August 16, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

For those who have studied at highly selective, elite universities, I think the ACTA survey demonstrates that there is something wrong with the core curriculum at those universities. Students should not be allowed to test out of college level requirements. If those students have met requirements based upon SAT/ACT, AB/IB examinations, then the very least is to require them to take another higher level course in the core subjects. IMAO, these people are simply lazy. They are not very smart. Anyone with enough money and surrounded by the best schools/tutors can afford to purchase SAT/ACT or AB/IB scores that impress highly selective "gatekeeping" admissions officers. But, once those students have move past the gatekeepers, they can coast to a "brand name" degree taking silly courses like "basketweaving 101" to collect the magic 120 credits.

Posted by: kitten2 | August 16, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

Kitten, Well, ACTA doesn't share your opinion about AP/IB. It doesn't care whether a university allows students to "test out" of one of its ideal requirements based on AP/IB test scores or an actual content-based test in the core area (as distinct from aptitude tests like the SAT/ACT). If Harvard had an A on the ACTA scale, I and a very large percentage of my classmates would have tested out of all but one or two of the requirements based on our AP/IB scores and would therefore have never been required to study any of those subjects at the actual university level. As it is, everyone attending Harvard now (and then) actually has to take courses in those subject areas (other than economics) regardless of whether they've already covered the material in the survey course. And that's leaving aside the general uselessness of large survey courses to do more than introduce one to the basics of advanced study.

Posted by: burntnorton | August 17, 2010 6:45 AM | Report abuse

Can everyone see that the "American Council of Trustees and Alumni" has displayed flawed logic? They assume students won't choose a balanced diet of courses unless force-fed a prescribed amount from each of the curricular "food groups"--math, languages,science, etc.

However, in over 40 years of offering a delicious high-choice curriculum, Grinnell College has found that with the help of supportive faculty mentors in the role of nutritionists, students consistently pursue a well-rounded education without the coercion of requirements. For example, of their own volition, over the past decade
Grinnell science majors have earned on average 34 credits in the Humanities and 18 credits in Social Studies as well as their 58 credits in their primary area, the Sciences. Curricular choices for Humanities and Social Studies majors are similarly well distributed. The students' transcripts may even look identical to those of graduates from a "distribution requirement" curriculum. However, the healthy balance and coherence of their programs result from consultation with a mentor and conscious decisions made by the student.

A 2006 study sponsored by the Teagle Foundation examined a number of
colleges that abolished their general graduation requirements around the
same time as Grinnell. The study concluded that the key to success for this type of program lies in strong faculty advising that guides students as they design their own course of study. The Teagle Foundation study also found that "these curricula have demonstrated unanticipated strengths and capacities that go beyond the aims and assumptions of their founders." New student-centered pedagogies, a turn toward interdisciplinary studies, and an urgent contemporary need to understand competing systems of value and belief, all keep this experiment in freedom of inquiry freshly relevant for today's world.

Neither colleges like Grinnell, nor the students who attend them, should be "downgraded." The transcript speaks louder than the catalog: It's simply wrong to assert that requirements are the only way to achieve curricular breadth.

The intellectual agility of a graduate is measured less by having obeyed the rules than by truly understanding the value of studying a wide array of subjects.

--Paula V. Smith, Professor of English, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Grinnell College

Posted by: LiberalArtsDean | August 18, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Look up your. <<<=====The whole list is available. (Quote from article by J. Mathews)

Why should we pay attention to someone who does not bother to proof read but is writing on educational matters?

The devil is in the details.

Posted by: petros3 | August 19, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

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