Walter E. Williams

When parents plunk down $20, $30, $40 and maybe $50 thousand this fall for a year's worth of college room, board and tuition, it might be relevant to ask: What will their children learn in return? The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) ask that question in their recently released publication, "What Will They Learn: A Report on the General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation's Leading Colleges and Universities."

ACTA conducted research to see whether 100 major institutions require seven key subjects: English composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science. What ACTA found was found was alarming, reporting that "Even as our students need broad-based skills and knowledge to succeed in the global marketplace, our colleges and universities are failing to deliver. Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses. Not surprisingly, students are graduating with great gaps in their knowledge -- and employers are noticing."

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The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 31 percent of college graduates can read and understand a complex book. Employers complain that graduates of colleges lack the writing and analytical skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. A 2006 survey conducted by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 24 percent of employers thought graduates of four-year colleges were "excellently prepared" for entry-level positions. College seniors perennially fail tests of their civic and historical knowledge.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni graded the 100 surveyed colleges and universities on their general education requirements. Forty-two institutions received a "D" or an "F" for requiring two or fewer subjects. Twenty-five of them received an "F" for requiring one or no subjects. No institution required all seven. Five institutions received an "A" for requiring six general education subjects. They were Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Texas A&M, University of Arkansas (Fayetteville), United States Military Academy (West Point) and University of Texas at Austin. Twenty institutions received a "C" for requiring three subjects and 33 received a "B" for requiring four or five subjects. ACTA maintains a website keeping the tally at

ACTA says that "paying a lot doesn't get you a lot." Generally, the higher the tuition, the less likely there are rigorous general education requirements. Average tuition and fees at the 11 schools that require no subjects is $37,700; however, average tuition at the five schools that require six subjects is $5,400. Average tuition fees at the top national universities and liberal arts colleges are $35,000 (average grade is "F").

Dishonest and manipulative college administrators might try to rebut the report saying, "We have general education requirements." At one major state university, students may choose from over 100 different classes to meet a history requirement. At other colleges, students may satisfy general education requirements with courses such as "Introduction to Popular TV and Movies" and "Science of Stuff." Still other colleges allow the study of "Bob Dylan" to meet a literature requirement and "Floral Art" to meet a natural science requirement.

ACTA's report concludes by saying that a coherent core reflects, in the words of federal judge Jose Cabranes, "a series of choices -- the choice of the lasting over the ephemeral; the meritorious over the meretricious; the thought-provoking over the merely self-affirming." A general education curriculum, when done well, is one that helps students "ensure that their studies -- and their lives -- are well-directed."

ACTA says that a recent study reports that 89 percent of institutions surveyed said they were in the process of modifying or assessing their programs. What these and other institutions need is for boards of trustees, parents and alumni to provide the necessary incentive to administrators and there's little more effective in opening the closed minds of administrators than the sounds of pocketbooks snapping shut.

Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
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