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Before choosing where to go for college, high school students and their parents usually spend time shopping around, evaluating various colleges and universities. Many also consult the college rankings published by a number of magazines and organizations. Those lists rate schools on such criteria as tuition, student SAT scores, and teacher to student radio. This year, a new ranking considered a different criterion.
What are students at this school expected to learn? That was the question posed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to 100 colleges and universities across the country. ACTA is an independent nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, quality and accountability. Its president, Anne Neal, says ACTA wanted to compare educational requirements… not academic reputation.
The report looked at seven key subjects: math, science, composition, U.S. history or government, economics, foreign languages and literature. Courses in these key areas of knowledge are necessary for students to be successful in their careers and life, Neal says
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"Our belief is that it's essential that students be proficient in reading and writing, that they understand enough math, science and economics to be able to function in a 21st century society, that they will be able to communicate in a foreign language since we live in an increasingly inter-connected world, and that they have a working knowledge of the history and governing institutions of their own country that prepares them for informed citizenship," she explains.
Survey results surprising
Neal says they were amazed that many universities graduate students "with a very patchy, thin education. 42 of the institutions surveyed required two or fewer of the key subjects. Five institutions were given an "A" by the ACTA for requiring 6 subjects: Brooklyn College, Texas A&M, University of Texas-Austin, West Point and University of Arkansas."
"I'm very proud that the University of Arkansas has for a long time had a very serious academic commitment," says Robert Costrell, professor of Education Reform and Economics at the University of Arkansas. He explains how students could graduate from some colleges without learning much about the basic areas the ACTA report highlighted.
Costrell says many selective universities in the United States have watered down or dropped their core corricula. "Instead what many universities moved to was a system where there were different broad categories of courses that a student could choose to satisfy [requirements]." He believes the choices students are given in many cases lean more "towards the fluffy treatment of serious material."
Higher tuition doesn't guarantee better education
"In fact the higher the tuition, we found the more likely it is that students are left to devise their own general education," says Anne Neal. "For example the average tuition and fees at the 11 schools that require no subjects is $37,700 and by stark comparison, the average tuition and fees at the 5 schools that require 6 subjects is only $5,400."
For Richard Wong, Executive Director of the American School Counselor Association, the new ranking is a valuable resource. High school guidance counselors often help students sort through the many colleges they could apply to. However, Wong says, there are other qualities that should be taken into account when comparing schools.
"What this ranking focuses on is the more broad, general education courses rather than the specifics to the major," he says. "There may be some people, for example, who say if they want an engineering degree, they want to go to a school that will provide the best education in engineering and not necessarily requires that the student knows world history." He believes the ACTA survey should be just one tool among many used by parents and students to weigh their options.
No matter how the ACTA report is used, University of Arkansas Professor Robert Costrell sees it as an impetus for schools across the country to re-examine what they teach their students.
"One thing the colleges could do is to sit down and reconsider what courses they are actually requiring students to take," he says. "They may also want to look and study closely what courses students are taking." He also suggests assessing what students learn "through some form of examinations or papers."
ACTA's President Anne Neal encourages families and students to check out updates of the study at www.whatwilltheylearn.com. Her group, she says, is currently surveying more colleges, adding more information to the site, and hoping to discover what college graduates have really learned and how ready they are to compete in the global marketplace