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Posted at 11:34 AM ET, 11/22/2010

Some area schools rate well in general education

By Daniel de Vise

In a story that published Sunday, I examined a new set of college ratings that attempt to measure how well universities do in providing a general education. By that I mean ensuring students learn essential knowledge and skills in math, science, literature and composition, foreign language, history and economics.

Many interviews with elite universities and their critics pointed to two main conclusions.

First, no one is particularly happy with the general education system. Colleges that attempt to make a list of essential courses -- or even disciplines -- risk getting shouted down by the departments that are left out.

Second, no one can agree on a practical definition of general education. Schools that require students to take each of the seven subjects cited in the "What Will They Learn?" database earn A's. But students at most of those schools can still avoid essential knowledge if they seek out obscure or eccentric courses. Many admire the core programs assembled at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, which dictate a portion of each student's education. But the St. John's College model, which dictates all of it, is clearly not for everyone.

One thing I neglected to do, and have been reminded about by several readers, is to tell how our many local universities fared in the general education ratings. I define "local" here as the District, Virginia and Maryland.

Here, then, is a sampling of local universities as measured in the gen-ed ratings. Don't see your alma mater? Search for the school here.

"A" schools

St. John's College, Annapolis

The "great books" school is one of just 17 colleges awarded A grades for requiring at least six of seven subjects measured in "What Will They Learn?": math, science, composition, foreign language, economics, history and literature. St. John's doesn't actually have gen-ed requirements per se. Instead, all students read the same stack of essential books and learn the same languages, including Ancient Greek. The books include works in most of the subjects covered in the ratings.

"B" schools

University of the District of Columbia

As a public institution serving students with severe academic deficits, UDC has general education requirements that mirror the graduation requirements of a high school. Math, science, composition and literature all are required.

U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis

The service academy weds a fairly prescriptive list of core disciplines to the elective structure of a "civilian" university. Requirements include composition, literature, science, math and history.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

UMBC, a math-science powerhouse, has unusually lengthy and specific gen-ed requirements. Math, science, foreign language and composition are all required.

George Mason University, Fairfax

Mason's "foundation requirements" emphasize "skills -- in writing, speaking and working with numbers and technology -- that can be applied to any major field of study and career goal." They require math, science, foreign language and composition.

Hampden-Sydney College, Hampden Sydney, Va.

This liberal arts school has a long tradition of core requirements that cover five of the seven items on the "What Will They Learn?" list.

Other "B" schools

Bowie State University, Bowie; Coppin State University, Baltimore; Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Va.; James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.; Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Va.; Stevenson University, Stevenson, Md.; Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.; Virginia State University, Petersburg, Va.; Washington & Lee University, Lexington, Va.

"C" schools

American, Catholic, Howard and George Washington universities, Washington; College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Richmond; Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Va.

"D" schools

Georgetown University, Washington; St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City; Towson University, Towson, Md.; University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Va.; University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

"F" schools

Frostburg State University, Frostburg, Md; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.; Washington College, Chestertown, Md.

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By Daniel de Vise  | November 22, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  Liberal Arts, Pedagogy  | Tags:  ACTA ratings, Johns Hopkins ACTA ratings, What Will They Learn, core college curriculum, general education ratings  
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The organization that promoted these "ratings" has a very specific agenda to promote only the most traditional 'canon' for the curriculum. The list above simply illustrates the absurdity of this or any ranking system.

For the record, however, since the list completely overlooks Trinity in Washington, our general education program certainly requires most of the traditional canon -- Trinity requires nearly 65 credits in Science and Math, Social Sciences (Economics, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science), History, Arts and Humanities, Foreign Language, Religion and Philosophy. In the first year, where students are assessed at entrance and grouped in learning communities, we also require demonstrated proficiency in the skills required for collegiate success --- critical reading, communication, critical and quantitative reasoning. We also require students to take courses that embed requirements for civic knowledge, leadership and experiential learning.

(Pat McGuire, President, Trinity)

Posted by: TrinityPresident | November 22, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Please be glad that Trinity was overlooked by that pointless and and foolish ranking. The reporter made the same mistake as the politically-motivated ranking organization. He simply reports what a school offers without questioning what how those schools operate and if they have multiple schools within the university.

For that, I won't call the previous piece a "story." It was fluff.

Posted by: alwayswonderswhy | November 23, 2010 6:00 AM | Report abuse

Mr de Vise,

I take total offense to you describing UDC as some sort of college for the academically challenged. Your article paints a picture of a campus full of inarticulate, unlearned, remedial numbskulls who can’t do long division. Whether the intention of your article was to simply state that UDC does serve SOME students without basic academic skills, your wording leaves it up to the reader’s imagination to figure out your intent. All UDC students are not from the bottom 10% of their HS graduating class. Some students go because its affordable or because of the flexible class times. UDC is indeed a Non-Traditional school, but a caterer to those with academic deficits???? I think you need to check your sources and facts. The professors that I had taught at other schools in the area such as GW, Howard and G-Town. Students from other schools were amazed. For instance, they wanted to take Organic Chemistry at UDC because they failed it at their own institution and wanted to take, what they thought would be, an easier course. They were sadly mistaken and surprised when they received a low grade, then stated, “this class was harder than the one at *******”
I do not, have not, will not have an academic deficit and I know there are many other students who would think your comments are totally offensive. You may site a low graduation rate as your basis for these claims, but those numbers do not reflect or accurately portray our campus make-up. We have part-time students, only taking a few pre-requisite courses for professional school. We have students with children and a family and a full time job who are only taking 1 class a semester. I challenge you Mr. de Vise, Please follow a student in the Biology or Chemistry department (That’s what my degree is in) for a year and then tell me if you think all UDC students are academically deficient!

Sir I implore you to please change the wording of your article and show some respect to the graduates and current students at UDC that do not have academic deficits.

~~~One of many LITERATE UDC Alums

Posted by: lilscooby09 | November 23, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

To me the mark of a good core is not what subjects are included, but whether it has a unifying principle: specified learning outcomes, common readings, an agreed-upon set of knowledge, etc. That's why the service academies and St. John's get such high marks for gen ed: the ends of education are so clear and specific that the unifying principle of gen ed is easily seen.

The problem with the ACTA approach is that it assumes that ACTA knows exactly what is best for every student in America to take in a core. Faculty need to own that discussion, and state their choices so clearly that students can decide among them when choosing a college. ACTA is trying to be coercive: include what we want you to include, or we'll condemn you.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, another conservative group, takes a much more flexible and pragmatic approach: if your college doesn't have a good core, build your own. They sell a series of books that help students design a core at those institutions that don't have a decent core of their own. That is, if you think US history, classical philosophy, and Econ 101 should be part of the core and your faculty don't, take the courses anyway as electives. It's less coercive and more free -- and more suitable to developing inquiring minds in a democratic society.

Posted by: drrico | November 23, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

It would be interesting to rank universities on the increase in scores. SAT score percentile versus graduate school admission test score percentile.

A senior who scores at the 60th percentile on the SAT and then goes on to score at the 95th percentile on a GRE, GMAT, or LSAT, would be someone who gained great competency in his or her undergraduate years. But if everyone who attends a given university sees a gain like that, then the entire institution is doing something remarkble. Who are these universities?

Posted by: blasmaic | November 23, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

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