Getting What Students Pay For In College

Our best public universities have spotty records in teaching such subjects as U.S.history, science and writing, and are having a persistent problem with grade inflation, according to a new report from the organization I work for, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Our report, Getting What You Pay For?: A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Public Universities, looks at key areas of quality cost effectiveness at Berkeley, Penn State, the University of Virginia and other “Top 50” public flagship universities in the United States.

Seventeen of the 50 schools require two or fewer of seven key subjects and another 21 require only three. At many schools the grading standards have grown weak, too. Between 1960 and 2006, the University of Michigan saw its average GPA increase by 0.65, the University of Wisconsin at Madison by 0.7, and the University of California at Berkeley by 0.76–almost the whole way from a C+ to a B+ average. Across schools in the study, large increases are the rule, not the exception.

Grade inflation has a corrosive effect on academic standards and campus culture. It encourages students to take courses like Indiana University’s “The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga” (most common grade: A+), rather than the serious courses that contribute to intellectual growth and informed citizenship.

At those institutions for which data is available, nearly half of seniors do not complete a single extended, comprehensive writing assignment. Nationwide, a third of the seniors at research universities spend ten hours or less each week studying or doing homework.

Meanwhile, costs are going up. In just the five years from 2008 to 2013, the flagship institutions discussed in this report raised their tuitions 31% after adjusting for inflation. That is even higher than the nationwide average for public four-year colleges, which was a 27% increase.

At these well-regarded schools the average four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students is 53.6%. Many students do eventually finish–by taking an additional semester, or year, or even longer, and paying much more in tuition.

A few institutions have held the line in one or more areas, and some even excel. The University of Georgia, for instance, is the only school in the report to receive an “A” rating for its core curriculum; UGA requires composition, literature, foreign language, mathematics, natural science, and U.S. history or government. The University of Maryland has pursued aggressive cost-cutting and productivity measures, thereby holding its tuition increase to only 0.9% over five years. Florida State and the University of Florida responded to large cuts in state funding by increasing efficiency and quality.

But too many schools are still trapped in old mindsets, increasing tuition and competing for reputation. They fixate on the U.S. News rankings, which purport to tell the public which schools are “best.” But is the best school the one with the most prestige and highest incoming SAT scores? Or is it the one that fulfills its mission to taxpayers by providing a high-quality education without breaking their budgets? At ACTA, we think it is the latter: which is why we offer a different kind of report. 

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