“The people running America’s colleges and universities have long thought they were exempt from the laws of supply and demand and unaffected by the business cycle. Turns out that’s wrong.”

Some might suggest this quote from National Review Online is politically motivated. The real problem is, Bill Barone’s article, The Higher Education Bubble, is chock full of food for worry.

Among Barone’s citations is WhatWillTheyLearn.com: A guide to what college rankings don’t tell you. Operated by ACTA (The American Council of Alumni and Trustees), this rating site evaluates schools on whether they require students to take courses in seven core subject areas. (ACTA also defines what success in these core subjects means.)

  • Composition
  • Literature
  • Foreign Language
  • U.S. Government or History
  • Economics
  • Mathematics
  • Natural or Physical Science

But here’s the catch, says ACTA:

“The fact that a college has requirements called Literature or Mathematics does not necessarily mean that students will actually study those subjects.”

ACTA  points out that schools might recommend certain core courses, but they let students slide by meeting “distribution requirements” that get them around those core courses.

“If a core course were one of several options that also included unqualified courses, the institution did not receive credit for that subject; credit is given only for what an institution requires of its students, not what it merely recommends.”

ACTA lines up the schools and busts their balls. Does Stanford University really rate a C? Harvard a D? Amherst an F? It seems a student doesn’t really have to master the core subjects at those schools.

Barone closes his article with this:

“As often happens, success leads to excess. America leads the world in higher education; yet there is much in our colleges and universities that is amiss and, more to the point, suddenly not sustainable.”

I don’t know anything about Barone or about the referenced website. But I’m interested in what you know about this topic and in your comments. Should we be worried that the conventional wisdom about going to college is far more wrong than it’s right? And if you think all kids should go to college, What are they learning?

(Thanks to Jason Johnson on the Phi Beta Kappa Group/LinkedIn for the heads-up on Barone’s article.)

PS — After I posted this column, I found a sort of poetic economic justice right below it, where I let Google publish its ads. While the ad periodically changes, it’s sometimes an ad from a certain for-profit college… They’re everywhere.


  1. I’m not sure that WhatWillTheyLearn’s rating system is of any value.

    It reminds me of ISO-9001. The quality doesn’t matter. Process for the sake of process matters. Doesn’t matter the quality of the education. Just matters if we can check a box saying all students should be treated the same in what is required learning. I’m not sure that’s the direction we need to head.

  2. It’s kind of silly to rank such selective colleges this way. You can’t get *admitted* to Stanford, Harvard, or Amherst without extremely well-developed skills in most of those subject areas–are we expected to believe that students graduate without a quality education because the core requirements are loose?

    One senses political motivations here…and lo and behold, it turns out that ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney and Joe Lieberman, among others. Next!

  3. WhatWillTheyLearn is an interesting site, but I do have a bit of a problem with it. My Alma Mater gets a C grade, while the professed “Liberal Arts” college gets a B. But of course this makes sense as WhatWillTheyLearn is ranking the liberal artsiness of schools in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong liberal arts education is good and I’ve agreed with what you’ve said before on this point, Nick.

    However, as an engineer I do not value some of the things WhatWillTheyLearn values are requirements. I am perfectly fine with my degree not requiring any foreign language. Especially since many colleges love teaching foreign languages in the “lets learn how to conjugate foreign verbs” method instead of the “lets learn to speak a foreign language” method.

    I’m not sure WWTL’s college ratings have any true meaning. My college is shown as not requiring 4 of the 7 items, but for my majors, I was required to take a course covering economics, and took as electives courses in US History. I believe that the elective requirements of my school would have most students picking up at least two of the “missing” subjects. My wife, who got a different degree, would have ended up missing only one item (Literature) after fulfilling the requirements for her major.

    WWTL seams to, ironically, not be a site with very deep insight into its study of how much deep insight education at US colleges imparts on students.

  4. Thanks for your input, guys! This is what I was hoping for. I haven’t had time to research ACTA or the politics behind it.

    I’ve been in the middle of dealing with our local school district’s “academic policies” and I have become very skeptical about the quality of American education in some quarters. I think much of the rigor has been lost.

    I’ve also been troubled by the education of people I deal with in my business. Maybe I’m getting to be a codger, but I see holes you can drive trucks through. I’m unimpressed much of the time.

    I hope we get more comments on this, both pro and con. I can’t verify the criteria that website is using to rate schools, but I’ve long been irked by the “holes” that schools build into “distribution requirements.”

    I’m not sure I agree with Jason’s argument that a technical degree should not require some of the core courses in that list, but I see his point. It’s debatable. But this raises another question: Why do schools purport to teach the core subjects when they’re not always doing it? Why not just have, say, engineering schools that teach nothing but technology? My beef is with schools that portray education one way, but actually deliver something else.

    For the record, I went to Rutgers and Stanford, neither of which scored well. I think I got a good education at both. But that’s because I wanted a broad education. Other grads I know didn’t fare as well. I’m bothered by the dilution of the solid education that “customers” believe they’re paying for.

  5. I think a lot of this depends on what you think the purpose of college is. Many people feel it’s career preparation, particularly parents writing checks. If so, what do any of the ACTA criteria mean unless students are going into those fields? A good technical writing course should suffice for engineering majors. Future English teachers and journalists need no science courses (unless said journalist wants to report on that field). Cut out the fat and get down to business. Any class not related to your major is a waste of time and money.

    If colleges should prepare students to be productive citizens of the society in which they exist, then the list is inadequate. What about art and music? What about a survey of religion class, something sorely needed today? What about a true civics class to teach students to become involved citizens, not parrots who repeat whatever they read or hear from news sources that only tell them what they want to hear? What about good old PE requirements to help instill active lifestyles?

    (And here’s some food for thought: An “educated” person from 200 years ago would be shocked to learn that today’s educational requirements do not include a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin. Standards change…..)

    That said, I don’t things have changed too much, at least at my school. As an engineering student, I had one humanities class a semester. I needed one writing, one history, one economics, one psychology, and one “free” class to graduate. The other 3 had to be higher level courses in a single department for a “depth” requirement. It’s still the same. The class list to comply with the requirements is large but not ridiculous.

    The humanities majors can still piece together a degree with what I consider(ed) a random selection of classes that didn’t seem to build upon each other as you went to the junior and senior classes.

    Yet all my humanities friends seem to be doing quite well for themselves. (This could be a selection bias, however, resulting from the admissions criteria.)

  6. Here’s a good idea for a college education that delivers what it promises.



  7. this let me wonder now
    shouldn’t the law of supply also rule in seeking employment instead of a rule of affirmative action since the labor market is subject to that law
    Business and related issues this person will be dealing with is also ruled by the law of supply and demand, business lost is lost for ever