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The Chronicle of Higher Education headline is dour: “Colleges to Confront Deep Cutbacks.” The news seems bleak.  But is it?

At the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, we see a silver lining — and one that gives special opportunities to donors in 2011.

As appropriations decline, institutions will increasingly rely on informed philanthropy. Alumni donate billions every year to colleges and universities. Institutions turn to individual donors — for financial support — and conscientious donors can play a critical role in demanding quality for students.

Just look at why this is so important.

ACTA’s unique online college guide, www.WhatWillTheyLearn.com, assesses the core curricula of 718 leading schools across the country, assigning each a letter grade.

We ask a very simple question: whether or not a graduate at each institution will study just one class in each of seven core areas: composition, math, science, literature, American history or government, economics, and foreign language.  A core requiring six or seven classes gets an A: nationwide, that’s 17 schools.

Of the schools we researched, fewer than half required the four or more classes needed to receive a B. 97 percent of schools require no economics, 81 percent of schools don’t require U.S. history or government, and nearly 40 percent don’t require college-level math.

American colleges are demanding more state appropriations and are stepping up their urgent pleas to alumni and donors, but they aren’t delivering on their promise to educate their students in key subjects.

Colleges talk a good game — promising in their catalogues and to donors that they give their students a firm educational foundation.  But they don’t “walk the walk.”

Donors may think they are supporting a rich, liberal arts education, but too often, they aren’t. Does “Introduction to Television” sound like a college-level literature course? It is at the University of Wisconsin. Or take the University of Florida, where over 500 classes fulfill the “Humanities” requirement, including “Philosophy and History of Recreation." Does that sound like it prepares students to participate fully as informed citizens? Most of us don’t think so, but too many of America’s colleges and universities do. Donors continue to pay them.

In the past, donors and parents have lacked tools to determine what kind of education they are supporting.  That has changed.  ACTA’s What Will They Learn? provides such a tool to parents, donors, students and the public. Available online — at www.whatwilltheylearn.com – and in print (go to www.goacta.org to order), this this resource gives donors a real way to change the game.

How? If you don’t like what you see, bring these troubling findings to the attention of the schools you fund, and, quite bluntly, hold them accountable for a quality education — before you provide more funds. One foundation is already doing just that with ACTA’s help. We think it’s a a good model for everyone. And we are seeing signs of impact, like trustees who call us asking how their schools can improve their curriculum — and their grade.

ACTA is working to change incentives in higher ed — to move donors, parents, and institutions away from reliance on reputation to reliance on value and quality. We’ve mailed guidance counselors across the country to tell them about this new resource. We’re communicating with trustees across the country and we’d like to help donors too. It’s time that students get the education they deserve — and one worth their families' and benefactors’ support.

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