Just as the vaunted U.S. News and World Report rated UC Berkeley as the nation's top public university last week, a less-noticed ranking system from the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni gave UC Berkeley an "F" because it only requires students to take one out of seven core subjects as defined by the study.
Indeed, just 16 of the more than 700 universities included in ACTA's "What Will They Learn" study earned A's. The only California college to make the "A List" was Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.
Other UC campuses, not to mention Yale, Brown and Northwestern universities, also earned F's. ACTA's researchers looked at university course catalogs to determine which required classes in composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and natural or physical science.
ACTA says on its rankings website:
Our report is not intended to offer a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of a university. That some of the best-known colleges earn poor marks for general education doesn’t mean that they don’t do other things well; it means that they are not demonstrating a commitment to a broad-based general education curriculum.
ACTA was co-founded by Lynne Cheney and former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm in 1995. (UPDATE: Cheney has since left the group.) Cheney had criticized professors for using humanities classrooms to advance what she saw as their left-wing political agendas, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education profile [PDF] of ACTA's president, Anne Neal.
The nonprofit, based in Washington, D.C., has itself criticized academia for graduating students with only a "thin and patchy education, with enormous gaps of knowledge in fields such as history, economics and literature," according to one of ACTA's publications, "The Hollow Core."
The organization takes aim at "distribution requirements" on most campuses, which allow students to pick from a wide range of courses to fill subject-area requirements. "Our colleges and universities have largely abandoned a coherent, content-rich general education curriculum … The general education curriculum has become anything goes," the website says.
As is the case with many college rankings, some highly rated schools celebrated their ACTA ranking, while some with average or poor grades criticized the report's approach. UC Berkeley took the latter tack.
"We take all college rankings with a grain of salt, and this particular group has a very narrow perspective," a spokesman for UC Berkeley said in a prepared statement. "We take undergraduate education very seriously, we feel that our students get a well-rounded education, and the quality of our graduates attests to that. Our F rating puts us in the company of some excellent universities, Yale and Williams among them."
At UC Berkeley, all undergraduates must fulfill two requirements: entry-level writing and American history and institutions. Beyond that, requirements vary by college.
At Cal's largest college, the College of Letters and Science, students have to fulfill requirements in reading and composition, quantitative reasoning and foreign language. In addition, they have to take one course in each of the following areas: arts and literature, biological science, historical studies, international studies, philosophy and values, physical science, and social and behavioral sciences.
Here's how ACTA viewed UC Berkeley's general education requirements:
Composition: This was the only area for which ACTA gave Cal credit. The university requires all undergraduates to fulfill an entry-level writing requirement.
Literature: ACTA defines this as a "literature survey course," and "narrow, single-author, or esoteric" courses do not count. The College of Letters and Science requires students to take at least one course in arts and literature. The list of eligible classes numbers in the hundreds.
Foreign language: ACTA demands "at least three semesters of college-level study in any foreign language, three years of high school work or an appropriate examination score." Students in Cal's College of Letters and Science can satisfy the requirement through a second-semester foreign language course.
U.S. government or history: ACTA gives UC Berkeley a zero because the university allows students to fulfill the history requirement using high-school work – one semester of U.S. history or half a semester of U.S. history and half a semester of U.S. government – or a score of 550 out of 800 on the SAT history subject test.
Economics: Berkeley does not require economics.
Math: ACTA gives Berkeley a zero because the College of Letters and Science allows students to fulfill the quantitative reasoning requirement through SAT scores.
Natural or physical science: ACTA defines this as a course in biology, geology, chemistry, physics or environmental science. UC Berkeley gets a zero because courses such as "Wildland Fire Science" satisfy the College of Letters and Science's physical science requirement, and "Fitness for Life: Physical Adaptations to Exercise" fulfills the biological science requirement.
Ignacio Navarrete, chairman of UC Berkeley's committee on educational policy and an associate professor of Spanish literature, said ACTA's views of how an undergraduate education should be are out of sync with most institutions. UC Berkeley purposely offers a wide range of courses that students can choose from to satisfy distribution requirements, although they can certainly take the types of courses that ACTA likes, he said.
"The philosophical reason is not to dictate (that) you have to study this instead of that, but to leave it open to students to pursue some study of a historical subject that you are interested in," he said. "The practical reason for that is that if you require specific courses then you are also creating enrollment bottlenecks, and … you are making it very difficult for transfer students."
Navarrete said that while ACTA's perspective is a minority view, his committee would listen if, for example, a group of faculty said the quantitative reasoning requirement should not be satisfied through the SAT exam.
"ACTA has an axe to grind, and this survey is ...sort of self-fulfilling," he said. "It's set up in order to show that places like Berkeley (and) a lot of other places that are top institutions are supposedly failing, and it doesn't take into account the quality of our courses at Berkeley, which are a lot harder than at other institutions. And I'm sure students learn a lot more."