"Academically Adrift", a study by two sociologists - Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia - demonstrated that 36 percent of our college students graduate with little or no measurable gains in their core academic skills - areas like expository writing and analytical reasoning. Their diplomas are literally tickets to nowhere. No, I take that back. With an average student debt of $25,250, they are tickets to long-term financial crises that can curtail their opportunities for decades.
The higher education establishment assures us that this poor showing is due to the underfunding of colleges. Not so. The average per-pupil expenditure on higher education in America is more than twice the average of other industrialized nations. No, the problem is not too little money. It is too little attention to what matters. What do students learn during those expensive college years?
That is precisely the title of a new and growing free resource developed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, where I am press secretary: The report, What Will They Learn? won't tell you about the wealth, status, or reputation of a school. It will tell you what core subjects the college requires. If you want to know whether the school requires, not just recommends, a course in English composition or college-level mathematics or intermediate level foreign language, this is the one tool that answers that question.
The shocking findings of the What Will They Learn? explain a lot about the poor outcomes of higher education. Even as our economy jolts and sputters, only five percent of schools have an economics requirement. Barely 15 percent require intermediate-level foreign language, even in today's globalized society. Just one-fifth of colleges and universities require a basic course in U.S. government or history. Only about one-third require a literature survey. Over a third fail to require a college-level math course, and there is even a hard-core 16 percent that lack a rigorous writing course.
But despite the trend of course catalogues to move away from a solid core, the American people realize the importance of a strong educational foundation. According to a Roper survey, seven in 10 Americans agree that students should be required to take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language. Among 25-34 year olds - recent grads struggling to succeed with just a patchy education, that number spikes to eight in 10 Americans.
Solid core requirements are increasingly falling to the wayside as the "do-as-you-please" model chips away at the basics. When 18-year-old first-year students are left to construct their own curriculum, they're often left with a haphazard smattering of unrelated classes, leading to an education with gaping holes in it. Some students have the discipline and vision to make good choices. Others will founder in the absence of the professional, adult leadership we might expect from our expensive system of higher education.
So what are students learning? They're learning about music, movies and the party scene. At Vanderbilt University, a course called "Country Music" can serve as the only collegiate history course a student takes. At Vassar College, a class that studies Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Gossip Girls can count as a student's foundation in English composition. According to this year's freshman handbook, the course will spark "sophisticated conversations" and introduce "students to critical reading and persuasive writing." Incredible, but true.
Even more astonishing is a new course at Yale. Yes, for that $40,000 price tag, your son or daughter can enroll in a course called "Dance Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City."
But don't worry. The doctoral student heading up the party told the New York Post that "it's not just about getting drunk. It's about the history of it, the Harlem cabarets, understanding race, gender, sex, Prohibition and the law." The course includes such academic lectures as "Looks, Doors and Guest Lists: Getting Past the Velvet Rope." Phew. For a moment, I thought students were abandoning the basics for something trivial.
The saddest part of this scenario, however, isn't what Yale is teaching - it's what they're not teaching. Students aren't required to take courses in composition, literature, economics, mathematics or American history/government. They may not know about John Adams, but they might get to know his second cousin Samuel - at least the one that comes in a bottle.