Frequently Asked Questions

What Will They Learn?® is a study of core academic requirements at all the major public and private universities in all 50 states—a total of 1,130 four-year institutions that together enroll more than seven and a half million undergraduate students. Its results are available to the public on a free website,, and print edition upon request.

Institutions in What Will They Learn?® are assigned a letter grade ranging from "A" to "F" based on how many of seven core subjects they require. Those subjects are: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science.

The 1,130 institutions in What Will They Learn?® comprise all public universities with a stated liberal arts mission as well as hundreds of private colleges and universities selected on the basis of size, reputation, and regional representation. Our survey does not include institutions with a vocational, technical, or otherwise narrow mission focus. All surveyed institutions are nonprofit, regionally accredited colleges and universities.

Our website does not rank schools, it rates them on objective academic criteria. It grades each school based on the strength of its core curriculum. None of the major ranking systems provide an evaluation of what students are learning. While these rankings look at such issues as the institution’s wealth, reputation, physical facilities, number of Ph.D.’s among the faculty, and alumni giving records, no system other than What Will They Learn?® pays serious attention to the curriculum.

U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, for example, are determined by a number of measures that are not related to teaching and learning. Among these are four that comprise about half of a college’s overall evaluation: reputation (20%), student selectivity (10%), expenditures per student (10%), and alumni giving rate (5%).

A core curriculum that fails to require most of the seven key subjects outlined in this report will not satisfy the basic demands of general education. It is essential that students:

  • be proficient in reading and writing;
  • understand enough math, science, and economics to be able to function in a modern, 21st century society;
  • be able to communicate in a foreign language since we live in an increasingly interconnected world;
  • have sufficient working knowledge of the history and governing institutions of this country to prepare them for informed citizenship.

Many institutions go above and beyond this model—and we note many that do throughout the website—but the seven core subjects we identify are the basic foundation of knowledge on which one should build. We also note those institutions that use a standardized, nationally–normed test to assess the core collegiate skills of their students.

The ratings serve as a valuable resource for high school counselors, parents, and student applicants to help them make choices that maximize the value of the higher education experience. They also target the sector of higher education that is ready to embrace significant academic reform, in other words, the trustees, alumni, academic leaders, and policymakers who will challenge the status quo.

Distribution requirements—a system in which students select one or more courses from broad academic areas like “Humanities,” “Quantitative Reasoning,” or “Arts and Culture”—may seem like an appealing idea on paper. Distribution requirements appear to combine the virtues of a core while giving students more room for choice, but in practice they usually allow students to graduate with only a thin and patchy education. Within each subject area, it is not uncommon for students to have dozens or even hundreds of courses from which to choose—many of them narrow or niche. At Penn State, for example, students can choose from over 480 different classes to fulfill their “United States Cultures” requirement, including "The History of Rock and Roll - Punk Rock" and "Introduction to Video Game Culture."

Studies published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Conference Board/Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Social Science Research Council have found that:

  • 87% of employers believe that America's colleges and universities need to raise the quality of student achievement to ensure the United States remains competitive in the global economy.
  • 63% of employers believe that too many recent college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the global economy.
  • Only 39% of recent college graduates say college prepared them very well to succeed in today's economy.
  • Less than 25% of employers consider the entry-level skills of four-year college graduates to be "excellent."
  • Over 25% of employers consider the writing skills of four-year graduates "deficient."
  • 36% of college graduates showed no significant increase in cognitive skills over the four years they were enrolled full time in college.

While most colleges today claim they are providing a strong core curriculum, in fact, they do so in name only. Instead of a limited number of courses, broad-based in focus, institutions now typically demand that students take courses in several broad subject areas—the so-called distribution requirements.

First of all, a core curriculum is in no way incompatible with choice. The requirement for the seven subjects that comprise the What Will They Learn?® core can be fulfilled in 30 credit hours—which is one-fourth of the credit hours normally required for a baccalaureate degree. The core makes sure that the basics are covered but students still have a range of courses to choose from and can pursue their own wider interests through electives.

Second, problems arise when having too many choices undermines the goal of giving students a coherent education. Once distribution requirements become too loose, students inevitably graduate with an odd list of random, unconnected courses. Research suggests that for many students, having an expansive range of course options for their general education is confusing and may even be an obstacle to college completion.

Finally, education is not only about faculty who know more teaching those who know less; it is also about those who know more identifying the subjects that form the core of a solid education. Educators and administrators must exercise judgment and identify critical areas for mandatory study, rather than leave it up to 18-year-old freshmen, still inexperienced in the ways of the world, to determine what they need to know.

Far from it. A well-designed core, such as the one suggested by ACTA, aims to give students the broad base of knowledge they need to compete successfully in our globalized economy and to make sense of the modern world. For example, as STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—fields continue to rise in prominence, scientific literacy increasingly becomes indispensable for individual and national economic success and for understanding the modern world.

Not all high school students take all of the courses that comprise a robust collegiate core curriculum. And more importantly, a high school-level class does not explore the material at a level commensurate with higher education.

Our analysis is based on publicly available information found in course catalogs. This is the same information many prospective students and parents reference when evaluating colleges.

Yes. In a study commissioned in August 2011, the highly respected Roper Public Affairs and Media firm found that 70% of American adults agree that colleges and universities should require all students to take basic classes in core subjects. That number spikes to 80% for 25-34 year olds, the segment that would include recent college graduates looking for employment and discovering the expectations that prospective employers have for entry-level skills.

The Roper survey also found that more than half of those surveyed (54%) were surprised that some institutions—including many prominent ones—do not require students to take any classes in basic economics, math, science, writing, and U.S. history before they graduate. That number rose to 61% for 18-24 year olds, the demographic being asked to make choices about entry-level college courses.

Additional findings include:

  • Less than half of American adults believe today's college students are definitely or probably getting their money's worth from a college education at a public college or university.
  • Less than half of those surveyed believe today's college students are definitely or probably getting their money's worth from a college education at a private college or university.
  • Nearly six in ten American adults believe today's colleges and universities are doing only a fair or poor job of preparing graduates for their future careers. That number jumps nine percentage points among the age group that includes recent graduates.

ACTA's What Will They Learn?® 2022-23 study is the thirteenth in this annual series. The series began in 2009 with an evaluation of 100 of the nation's leading colleges and universities. In 2010, ACTA surveyed more than 700, and in 2011, the list surpassed the 1,000 mark. This year's list has grown to 1,130 institutions. 

Several significant and interesting patterns emerge from the ratings. The first is that reform in the core curriculum overall proceeds at a glacial pace. Second, our research suggests that the more costly a college, the less likely it is that the college will have a required core curriculum. Indeed, often less expensive colleges and universities have the most robust core curriculum requirements. Third, public institutions generally outshine private schools, and historically black colleges and universities fare better than the average college we studied. The U.S. military service academies have exceptionally strong core requirements.

Schools’ reactions tend to be as varied as their grades. Colleges and universities that do well are often eager to publicize their rating. Schools that fail to provide a broad core curriculum, however, often criticize ACTA’s rating system. Several schools have indicated an interest in strengthening their core curricula and rising in the ratings. Indeed, three schools (Bluefield College, Colorado Christian University, and Regent University) have strengthened their curricula to receive "A" ratings.

Colleges and universities with poor ratings in the ACTA study are not necessarily "failing" schools, but they are failing the long-term needs of their students by not requiring a broad-based core curriculum. This is recognized by an overwhelming number of recent graduates, as evidenced by the fact that 66% of 25-34 year olds believe that colleges are doing only a fair or poor job of preparing students for the workplace, according to a nationwide Roper poll.

The information used in the study was drawn from the most recent course catalogs and school websites available to our researchers. In addition to evaluations of general education requirements, What Will They Learn?® provides the following information: following information: four-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time freshmen who started their studies nine years ago; tuition and fees for the prior academic year, drawn from data available on the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) or College Navigator in August of this year; undergraduate enrollment data for the 2021-22 academic year, also drawn from IPEDS or the College Navigator; and use of standardized assessments of collegiate skills drawn from publicly available websites.

The criteria and model used by ACTA were reviewed by three panels of noted independent academics, including George E. Andrews, former president of the American Mathematical Society and Evan Pugh Professor of Mathematics at Penn State; Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University; Jonathan Rose, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at Drew University; Sidney Gulick, professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland; James A. Sellers, professor and associate head for undergraduate mathematics at Penn State; William Fagan, professor of biology at the University of Maryland; Matthew A. Malkan, professor of astronomy at UCLA; David Doughty, professor of physics and provost at Christopher Newport University; and the late William Craig Rice, director of the Division of Educational Programs for the National Endowment for the Humanities.