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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column included St. Thomas Aquinas among the 16 schools that earned the highest marks in an American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey of 714 institutions' commitment to general education. The version below has been corrected.
Colleges come up short on what students need to know

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A13

It is generally true that you get what you pay for, but not necessarily when it comes to higher education.

A study scheduled for release Monday about the value of a college education, at least when it comes to the basics, has found the opposite to be true in most cases. Forget Harvard and think Lamar.

Indeed, the Texas university, where tuition runs about $7,000 per year (Harvard's is $38,000) earns an A to Harvard's D based on an analysis of the universities' commitment to core subjects deemed essential to a well-rounded, competitive education.

In other words, Lamar requires courses that Harvard apparently considers of lesser value. These include six of the seven subject areas used in the study to gauge an institution's commitment to general education: composition, literature, foreign language at the intermediate level, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science.

Harvard has comprehensive requirements for only two of these subjects -- composition and science.

The study was conducted by the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) to help parents and students determine where they might get the best bang for their buck. It was timed to coincide with the release of U.S. News and World Report's annual evaluation of the "best" colleges and universities, which is based primarily on various statistical data, reputation and prestige.

ACTA focused its efforts on requirements as a measure of what an institution actually delivers. Anne Neal, ACTA president, is quick to point out that the grading system doesn't tell the whole story about an institution but does offer a crucial part that has been missing.

On a user-friendly Web site, "What Will They Learn?" (http://www.whatwilltheylearn.com), which is being updated on Monday, visitors can compare the major public and private universities in all 50 states. Of the 714 four-year institutions reviewed, more than 60 percent received a grade of C or worse for requiring three or fewer of the key subjects. Only 16 received an A, among them: Baylor University, City University of New York -- Brooklyn College, Texas A&M University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy, the University of Arkansas and Thomas Aquinas College.

In other findings, public institutions are doing a relatively better job than private schools of ensuring that students receive basic skills and knowledge -- and at a considerably lower price. But both public and private universities are failing to ensure that students cover the important subjects, notably economics and U.S. government or history.

Among the reasons for this void in "the basics" is that many professors prefer research to teaching, and course content often reflects that. There's no paucity of subjects to choose from, which is part of the problem. More courses equals more expense equals higher tuition. The question is whether the offerings are of any value.

At Emory University, for example, to fulfill a "History, Society and Culture" requirement, students may choose from about 600 courses, including "Gynecology in the Ancient World." At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a "Humanities, Literature and Arts" requirement may be met by taking an introduction to television. Neal, herself a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, doesn't dispute that these may be excellent classes. "But the question being asked is whether this is the only exposure a student is getting when going to university."

Students given so many choices aren't likely to select what's good for them. Given human nature, they'll choose what's fun, easy or cool -- and not early in the morning or on Fridays. It's up to universities to guide them away from the dessert tray to the vegetable courses they need to develop healthy minds. Neal says that colleges have abdicated that responsibility.

"It's ludicrous to take an 18-year-old and give them hundreds of choices when they don't have any basis for making a decision."

At a time when the cost of higher education is increasingly prohibitive -- and emphasis tends to focus on status -- students and parents can find solace in the possibility that a better education can be found in one's own back yard. This doesn't necessarily mean that a student at Lamar will learn more than one at Harvard. As some argue, intellectually motivated students indeed may find what they need anywhere. And students properly guided may fail to absorb what is offered.

But the study and Web site do fill a gap so that parents and students can make better choices. As a consequence, colleges and universities may be forced to examine their own responsibility in molding an educated, well-informed citizenry.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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