How Are Our Colleges Faring?

Just a few short weeks ago, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa once again rocked the world of American higher education with the publication of their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. Their study found that many of today’s college graduates were not provided with the tools and skills to transition smoothly to adult life. Many are unemployed or grossly underemployed, and the transition to greater financial and civic responsibility is anything but easy.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has just released a study that uncovers why so many graduates of expensive, reputable universities are facing such difficulty. What Will They Learn? shows that, despite their promises, too many of America’s college and universities fail to provide a well-rounded preparation for career and community.

In our modern, globalized world, only 13% of the nearly 1,100 schools we evaluated require the equivalent of three semesters of foreign language study. Though modern campuses are full of social “activists,” many students are ill-prepared to be informed citizens—less than 20% of schools require a foundational course in U.S. history or government, and just over 3% require even a single course in basic economics. With all the national buzz about our need for more STEM education, it does not bode well that less than two-thirds of schools require college-level math.

What are students taking instead? At Harvard, they can fulfill their literature requirement with “American Dreams from Scarface to Easy Rider.” At the University of Colorado-Boulder, students can take “Horror Films and American Culture” or “America Through Basketball” in lieu of an American history course.

There isn’t only bad news, however. Columbia University still maintains its renowned core curriculum. And ACTA’s “A” schools run the gamut from small private schools like Regent University to public universities like the University of Georgia and our newest “A” school, Christopher Newport University. These institutions provide a model for college and universities across the country, and they show that a strong core isn’t just for a select few.

But this kind of transformation can only happen with the help of strong leadership on the part of trustees. In states such as Tennessee, South Dakota, Georgia, and Nevada, regents and trustees have taken the initiative to create core curriculum standards that apply to all schools within a system or even a state. In Georgia, for example, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) has established statewide core curriculum guidelines. The result: the 21 institutions governed by the USG require an average of 4.5 of the seven subjects studied in What Will They Learn?™, well above the national average of 3.1. Similar results can be found at the universities under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Oklahoma State Regents, and the Nevada Board of Regents.

The world is changing fast, but the value of the liberal arts remains higher than ever. As we move into the 21st century, our nation needs workers who are agile and adaptable, citizens who are thoughtful and informed, and human beings to have been exposed to the very best that has been thought and said.

In other words, it’s time to restore our core.

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