NEAL: Colleges Failing Students in the Liberal Arts

May 14, 2012

(For release May 16 and thereafter)


Congratulations and best of luck to the Class of 2012. Even with a degree in hand, they’ll need it.

A college diploma just doesn’t mean what it used to. Consider the following:

Forgive the generalization, but many have earned diplomas without learning much in core subjects that require critical thinking essential to a successful career. Says the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “At a time when the demands of the modern workforce and global marketplace make a broad general education more important than ever, far too many of our institutions are failing to deliver.”

ACTA examined catalogs, syllabi and other course materials at more than 1,000 colleges and universities to assess what students are required to learn.

The organization gave schools a letter grade based on whether students had to fulfill a “core curriculum” in the disciplines of composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and natural or physical science.

Only 19 colleges, less than two percent, received an “A”. Thirty-seven percent got “B”s. A majority of colleges earned “C”s or lower.

Twenty-four Indiana institutions were included in the study. None received “A”s and only four got “B”s: Taylor University, University of Indianapolis, University of Notre Dame and Indiana University Kokomo. IU’s Bloomington campus got a “C” and Purdue in West Lafayette a “D”. Two schools got “F”s: Indiana University Northwest and Earlham College.

Even schools that had the “appearance of strict requirements” didn’t necessarily fare well due to wide latitude given students to choose from courses of varied content and rigor. The report cited as one example Indiana University-South Bend where a core requirement in “Literary and Intellectual Traditions” could be satisfied by taking “Woman in Refrigerators and Beyond: A Feminist Approach to Reading Comic Books.”

The ACTA findings are echoed by other recent studies, which raise alarming questions about the value of higher education at a time when politicians insist a college degree is more important than ever.

Economists Frederic Pryor and David Schaffer noted in a 2000 study that a growing number of college graduates were taking “high school” jobs because of their low level of cognitive skills.

In a groundbreaking book, Academically Adrift, published in 2011, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia used standardized test data to conclude that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college and 36 percent did not advance over four years of college.

Recent headlines have warned the Class of 2012 of a “weak labor market” that is “particularly tough” on young workers. What the headlines have failed to convey is that part of the problem is students’ lack of preparation.

We tell students to go to college so they can get a better job and make more money. We fail to tell them that the formula only works when they take hard classes, spend most of their time studying, and attend schools that force the to engage their cognitive thinking skills.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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