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August 16, 2010 5:22 PM The Weak Distribution Requirements of American Colleges

By Daniel Luzer

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American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit organization (founded by Lynn Cheney in 1995) created to “support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price,” has just issued its own new college rankings. According to a press release from the organization:

Responding to the widespread dissatisfaction with traditional college rankings and the growing demand for universities to refocus on undergraduate education and value, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni unveiled today its 2011 college evaluations on WhatWillTheyLearn.com, a day before the release of U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.
The free website evaluates more than 700 colleges and universities based on their general education curricula: the core courses aimed at providing a strong foundation of knowledge.

Most colleges apparently aren’t doing too well. WhatWillTheyLean gives American colleges and universities letter grades based on distribution requirements. How many core courses in Composition, Mathematics, Science, Economics, Foreign Language, Literature, and American Government or History does the school require in order for students to earn a bachelor’s degree? More than 60 percent of schools require students to take less than three of these core subjects.

The trouble with this sort of ranking is that, despite the website’s name, it doesn’t actually say what students learn. This is just about the breadth of courses students have to take order to earn a degree. No one’s ever been able to demonstrate the students who go to schools with a lot of distribution requirements are any better off than students who don’t.

Kathleen Parker writes about the ranking in the Washington Post:

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.

This is why graduates of Lamar University often seem to run the world and Harvard is so obscure, right?

American Council of Trustees and Alumni makes an interesting point about distribution requirements, but so what? Maybe specialization is okay.

Check out the American Council of Trustees and Alumni college rankings here. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer