What Will You Learn? Spoiler: Not as much as they say you will….

Time for the 2013 Edition of ACTA’s What Will They Learn?™ report.

In last year’s edition, ACTA followed the curricula at over 1,000 undergraduate institutions to see whether there was any correlation between desired learning outcomes in liberal arts programs and topics actually covered in the classroom.

Last year’s results were shocking enough.

Most high-tuition institutions — including the Ivies — failed to provide even the most basic coverage of topics promised in published course descriptions.  You would think, for example, that a humanities curriculum that promises courses in the sciences and mathematics would design courses in which students could actually learn both science and math. No so, for a shocking percentage of the institutions who ask students to pony up $40,000 per year for the experience of bypassing pretty much every useful mention of physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, and computer science.

This year’s survey results were no more encouraging: From the report’s Executive Summary:

What Will They Learn?™ evaluates every four-year public university with a stated liberal arts mission as well as hundreds of private colleges and universities selected on the basis of size, mission, and regional representation. All schools in the What Will Will They Learn™ study are regionally-accredited, non-profit institutions. Combined, the 1,070 institutions in the What Will They Learn?™ study enroll over seven million students, more than two-thirds of all students enrolled in four-year liberal arts schools nationwide.

Overall, the results are troubling. The grade tally tells the story:

A 21 (2.0%)

B 393 (36.7%)

C 338 (31.6%)

D 229 (21.4%)

F 89 (8.3 %)

Less than half of the schools studied require:

Literature – 37.9%

Foreign Language – 13.7%

U.S. Government or History – 18.3 %

Economics – 3.4 %

The Seinfeld Show

Most discouraging to me is the F grade that Amherst earned this year by requiring literally nothing. Sacrificing at the altar of curriculum flexibility, Amherst has no core requirements. This leads to an extremely high completion rate with no guarantee that a  student knows anything at all about math, reading, history, or composition.  It doesn’t have to be that way; you can dispense with a core curriculum and not sink into the academic version Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing.” [See, for example, my chapter on the Threads curriculum in Abelard to Apple].

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