What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Academically Adrift“, a study by two sociologists – Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia – demonstrated that 36
percent of our college students graduate with little or no measurable gains in
their core academic skills – areas like expository writing and analytical
reasoning.  Their diplomas are literally tickets to nowhere.  No, I
take that back.  With an average student debt of $25,250, they are tickets
to long-term financial crises that can curtail their opportunities for

The higher education establishment assures us that this
poor showing is due to the underfunding of colleges. 
Not so.  The average per-pupil expenditure on higher education in America is
more than twice the average of other industrialized nations.  No, the
problem is not too little money.  It is too little attention to what
matters.  What do students learn during those expensive college years?

That is precisely the title of a new and growing free
resource developed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, where I am press secretary: The report, What
Will They Learn?
 won’t tell you about the wealth, status, or
reputation of a school.  It will tell you what core subjects the college
requires.  If you want to know whether the school requires, not just
recommends, a course in English composition or college-level mathematics or
intermediate level foreign language, this is the one tool that answers that

The shocking findings of the What Will They Learn? explain
a lot about the poor outcomes of higher education.  Even as our economy jolts and sputters, only
five percent of schools have an economics requirement.  Barely 15 percent
require intermediate-level foreign language, even in today’s globalized
society.  Just one-fifth of colleges and universities require a basic course in
U.S. government or history.  Only about one-third require a literature survey. 
Over a third fail to require a college-level math course, and there is even a
hard-core 16 percent that lack a rigorous writing course.

But despite the trend of course catalogues to move away
from a solid core, the American people realize the importance of a strong
educational foundation.  According to a Roper
, seven in 10 Americans agree that students should be required to
take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics,
U.S. history, and foreign language.  Among 25-34 year olds – recent grads
struggling to succeed with just a patchy education, that number spikes to eight
in 10 Americans.

Solid core requirements are increasingly falling to the
wayside as the “do-as-you-please” model chips away at the basics.  When
18-year-old first-year students are left
to construct their own curriculum, they’re often left with a haphazard
smattering of unrelated classes, leading to an education with gaping holes in
it.  Some students have the discipline
and vision to make good choices.  Others
will founder in the absence of the professional, adult leadership we might
expect from our expensive system of higher education.

So what are students learning?  They’re learning about
music, movies and the party scene.  At Vanderbilt University, a course called
“Country Music” can serve as the only collegiate history course a student
takes.  At Vassar College, a class that
studies Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Gossip Girls can count as a
student’s foundation in English composition.  According to this year’s freshman
handbook, the course will spark “sophisticated conversations” and introduce
“students to critical reading and persuasive writing.”  Incredible, but true.

Even more astonishing is a new course at Yale.  Yes, for
that $40,000 price tag, your son or daughter can enroll in a course called “Dance
Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City.”

But don’t worry.  The doctoral student heading up the
party told the New York Post that “it’s not just about getting drunk. It’s
about the history of it, the Harlem cabarets, understanding race, gender, sex,
Prohibition and the law.”  The course includes such academic lectures as “Looks,
Doors and Guest Lists: Getting Past the Velvet Rope.”  Phew.  For a moment, I
thought students were abandoning the basics for something trivial.

The saddest part of this scenario, however, isn’t what
Yale is teaching – it’s what they’re not teaching.  Students aren’t required to
take courses in composition, literature, economics, mathematics or American
history/government.  They may not know about John Adams, but they might get to
know his second cousin Samuel – at least the one that comes in a bottle.


  • Daniel Bennett

    Daniel L. Bennett is a Research Professor at the Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Baylor University.

3 thoughts on “What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

  1. They’ll surely not forget what they’ve learned to those classes. It is because they see and hear it. They even experienced it to understand race, gender, sex, prohibition and law just by going to clubs.

  2. Re: “They’re learning about music, movies and the party scene.”
    Don’t forget the Communism 101 series, i.e., the race and gender construct and political advocacy courses that are often required of all majors.

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