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Last week the American Council of Trustees and Alumni came out with their invaluable annual "What Will They Learn?" report in which the researchers at the council ask what is arguably the most important question about higher education. Too bad it is one that colleges fail to ask so often. ACTA looks at which colleges actually offer a broad-based liberal arts curriculum and require students to take it. The results were, as in previous years, rather depressing.

The report covers 1,007 public and private four-year colleges in 50 states. Of those colleges studied:

Only 5 percent require economics;

Slightly less than 20 percent require U.S. government or history;

Barely 15 percent require intermediate-level foreign language.

There are any number of reasons for the decline in basic academic requirements. One is certainly that professors are often uninterested in teaching Economics 101 or Beginners French for the 15th year in a row. (I was recently speaking with an academic who left his university after about 20 years and he told me he was very tired of teaching such courses over and over, even while changing the syllabus. When I asked him what he expected when he was in graduate school, he said it never occurred to him to think about such matters.) But another is surely that administrators have abdicated their roles of telling students what is in their best interest. Now administrators just hand over a course catalogue to freshmen and tell them to pick whatever they want.

So then it's interesting to look at the Roper poll that ACTA sent out with this report. According to the phone survey of more than 1000, "Seven in ten Americans (70 percent) agree colleges and universities should require that all students take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language."

I fear that this is not a particularly useful result. The way that the matter is presented to students and parents is not, would you like these requirements or not? Rather it's, "wouldn't you rather have the choice to take anything you want?" Or "wouldn't you rather take classes that seem more immediately relevant to the job you are planning to take when you graduate?" Particularly when they start throwing in words like globalization and suggest that "the jobs you have probably don't even exist today," higher education's "customers" are often swayed in their feelings about core requirements.

Many Americans still doubt the value of knowing American history or writing or even fluency in French or Italian when it comes to getting a job. They are more likely to see the value of math or science or economics, but still, the question would have been better framed as a choice. It's possible that students wouldn't have to sacrifice much freedom in order to have some basic core requirements but that is a case that would have to be made more forcefully by faculty and administrators.

I'm very glad that ACTA has bothered to study this question of core requirements but I worry that this methodology will only take you so far. ACTA is touting its result that the nation's historically black colleges and universities did well in comparison to other public and private schools: The average grade for an HBCU is a “B,” while the average grade for all other institutions in the What Will They Learn? study is a “C.” No single HBCU received an “F,” compared to the 87 “F’s” among the other schools in the study. Every HBCU in the study received credit for an English composition requirement.

I'm glad to hear this but other studies will suggest that academically most HBCUs don't have a lot else going for them. Someone I know well recently wrote about this.

In 2006, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate at HBCUs was 37%. That's 20 percentage points below the national average and eight percentage points below the average of black students at other colleges. A recent Washington Monthly magazine survey of colleges with the worst graduation rates featured black schools in first and second place, and in eight of the top 24 spots.

The economists Roland Fryer of Harvard and Michael Greenstone of MIT have found that black colleges are inferior to traditional schools in preparing students for post-college life. "In the 1970s, HBCU matriculation was associated with higher wages and an increased probability of graduation, relative to attending a [traditional college]," they wrote in a 2007 paper. "By the 1990s, however, there is a substantial wage penalty. Overall, there is a 20 percent decline in the relative wages of HBCU graduates in just two decades." The authors concluded that "by some measures, HBCU attendance appears to retard black progress."

This is not to say that ACTA's requirements are not important. Only that other factors may trump these as signifiers of quality in the end.

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