What did you learn in college?

It’s that time of year again. U.S. News & World Report has unveiled its list of the best schools in the country. My alma mater, the University of Kansas, was 104th overall and 47th publicly. But as everyone rushes to see where their school ranks and helicopter parents look to see where Little Annie should apply in the fall, GOOD brought to my attention another ratings system.  

This one, done by American Council of Trustees and Alumni, grades universities on a deceptively simple scale: What types of classes do students have to take to graduate?

As someone who remembers my KU ARTS form and its distribution tables well, I was surprised to learn just how poorly some of the “best” American schools did. Brown, Northwestern and Yale? Fs. Harvard landed a D. Dartmouth and Princeton sit at Cs. Amherst and Williams, the crown jewels of the small liberal-arts model, also got Fs.

Who got As? Baylor, Texas A&M, the Air Force Academy and West Point, to name a few.  And several highly thought-of schools, like the University of Chicago and Columbia, managed Bs. Kansas also scored a B, although we were docked in an area that I’m not sure we should have been.

What were the criteria?

Nothing more complicated than asking, “In order to graduate, do students have to take classes in composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history or government, economics, mathematics and science?” To get an A, a school must require at least six. To get a B, at least four. Cs need at least three, Ds two and Fs one or fewer.  KU had four; it was missing economics, foreign language and U.S. history and/or politics.

If you’re like me, you’re asking, “How in the hell can anyone graduate college without having to take ANY kind of English, math, science, foreign language or history class?”

The classes I took at KU are listed on this site in my CV. Quite a few of them come from the areas listed above. While economics isn’t a liberal arts requirement (which is what the site graded on specifically), it was required for my journalism degree and international studies co-major (in which I have an economics focus). I also took a course in American government and another in American sociology. I also had to complete German up to proficiency, which is why I disagree with KU getting docked in the foreign-language area.

Calculus, microeconomics, macroeconomics, biology, statistics, geology, eastern religion, western civilization, classics, English seminar, psychology. You name it, I took it. And I had to, to graduate. And that’s on top of the 30-33 credit hours for each of my two majors and about 15-18 for my co-major.

A lot of the schools with poor grades are big on lax curricula and letting students set their own requirements. This is all well and good, if students would challenge themselves and not try to use basket-weaving as a history geneneral education requirement. And yeah, students at many of those schools are known for being academically motivated.

But (and I could just be cynical), I don’t think biology majors would necessarily take literature if they didn’t have to, like I don’t think many English majors would want to take calculus. And, someone could posit, does it matter? It’s a question of what kind of education you think is best: one that is narrowly focused on a highly specialized area, or one that requires a broad sampling of classes.

I just don’t like the idea that maybe, just maybe, I took classes of actual difficulty and substance at a “lowly” state school, while someone else could theoretically enroll in cream-puff classes at a more “prestigious” school and somehow have a “more valuable” degree.

Ah, well. That’s what grad school’s for. And speaking of grad school, the British immigration authority has graciously accepted my visa application, meaning that in less than a month’s time, I will officially be traveling to England.

Where, ironically, undergraduates typically take classes exclusively in their majors, allowing them to graduate in three years instead of four in most cases.

Oy vey.


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