- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

WhatWillThey Learn.com is an alternative college guide that challenges much of the standard wisdom used for ranking colleges and universities. It was launched recently by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) to address the widespread erosion of rigorous general education requirements. ACTA argues that this plays a significant role in the lack of preparedness among many college graduates.

To some degree, college students should be able to choose classes that reflect their personal interests. However, too much flexibility results in many students graduating with a smorgasbord of narrow and frivolous courses. Furthermore, today’s rapidly changing job market favors college graduates who are more capable of reinventing themselves and competing with counterparts around the world. A rigorous and well-rounded education can only serve to enhance these 21st-century survival skills.

ACTA’s criteria for a content-rich and comprehensive college education focuses on the following seven general requirements: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history or government, mathematics, science and economics.

The results of its survey are shocking: The average score for US News & World Report’s top 20 universities is D (one to two core subjects). Half of them got F (zero to one core subject required). Flagship state colleges and universities fared the best. Half of them (30 out of the 60 surveyed) got B or better. In fact, only one of the seven schools on the “A-list” is private (Baylor University, six core subjects required).

Ironically, top universities that scored poorly recruit many of the nation’s highest achievers. This means many students with the greatest potential are being given a free pass to take a disproportionate number of classes that provide little more than a means for recreation. This arrangement may be popular with young adults, but did parents have this in mind when they signed on to pay $35,000 or more per year?

Alumni and donors to these colleges also should be deeply concerned.

What does it say for our country’s future when so little is being asked of our best and brightest? It is not just about competing economically with China. It also is about training future leaders. (None of these 20 schools has a general requirement for U.S. history or government.) It also is about intangibles, such as nurturing a coherent community of intellectuals whose contributions enrich our lives in ways that money just can’t buy.

The World Bank has singled out human resources as the leading source of economic wealth in developed nations. For their part, institutions of higher education should step up to the plate and provide a solid foundation to all who attend. Parents voting with their wallets could provide the incentive.

The current anything-goes attitude all too often neglects a key portion of our intellectual capital. In countless ways, we are all the poorer for it.

• Antonio R. Chaves, a teacher at St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, learned about the college guide at a meeting of the D.C. chapter of the National Association of Scholars.