College Application Season – “What the rankings don’t tell you”

Location, tuition, rankings, size, program offerings. “What’s the right college for me?” is the question of the season and it’s become so intense, students don’t tell each other where they apply.

These factors loom large on the landscape of choices today, but two key aspects of  college are often overlooked.

  1. What they actually learn
  2. The culture which encourages such learning


Few colleges require core subjects any longer and the quality of a post secondary education is largely left up to the teenage student through distribution style requirements, taking “A History of Rock and Roll” instead of American History for example.

For this first concern about WHAT students learn, you may look up the institution here to determine just what courses are required.  ( What Will They Learn survey ) A student may still receive an excellent education, but that depends just on the student and her course selections. I like this comment from the site, prepared by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

February 28, 2014 – 12:02 PM | “It is true that students can get a great education from almost any school in the country. The bad news is that the quality of their education is, in many cases, up to them, and many schools will provide little guidance.” I’ve been thinking something like this for a long time. It seems to me that we’ve decided to follow the Bennet family model of education from Pride and Prejudice: “Those who wished for learning never lacked for the means; those who wished to be idle certainly might.” And this system tends to result in far more Lydias then Elizabeths.

The  ACTA prepared the survey which identifies 7 basic subjects and determines which schools require them.  Here are colleges which make the A list.


Study the list and you might conclude a few things.  Just where are the Ivies? Four United States service academies make the list and multiple Christian colleges, and this is a fairly short list, just 25 colleges out of over 1100 surveyed!  Perhaps the academies and Christian institutions believe in an informed citizenry and a substantive basis of an education.

Here’s a report on the Ivy League colleges and their requirements, or lack thereof, of the seven subjects.


2) What kind of culture exists to encourage learning?

I wrote this post because I’m concerned about campus culture with its “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” and intellectually stifling atmosphere, so pernicious and intolerant of diversity of speech or thought or religion. We’re reconsidering University of Chicago because of the prescience, decency and frankly, courage of the dean of students in these troubling times to tell it like it is.

This letter has gone viral and you can read what the mainstream thinks here, A Quick Lesson on What Trigger Warnings Actually Do.  The author, surprise, takes issue with the Dean’s letter. But she ought to ask herself, just what is the purpose of college then? It’s worth reading the first four readers’ comments which applaud the dean.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas is how we learn.  And debate, disagreement, challenge, differences on everything from ideology and experience are as much a part of diversity as our height or skin color.

Here’s this year’s letter to new students from the University of Chicago’s dean Jay Ellison, PhD.


we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The WhatWillTheyLearn site and ACTA have helped address this concern. Working in conjunction with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), schools are given a rating.

A “Green Light” indicates that a school’s policies do not seriously imperil free speech. A “Yellow Light” indicates a school maintains policies that restrict a limited amount of protected expression or could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. Finally, a “Red Light” indicates that a school has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

Not surprisingly, University of Chicago receives a Green Light. Williams College, by contrast, receives a Red Light for its impingement of free speech and a letter grade of “D” on the subject criteria. It’s worth noting that U.S. News and World Report ranks Williams College #1 among liberal arts schools in the country this year. (Death of Free Speech at Williams College, Washington Post)



How can Williams be #1 on US News and earn a “D” from WhatWillTheyLearn? US News and PrincetonReview use different criteria than WhatWillTheyLearn; US News includes factors from Graduation Rate to Alumni Giving and PrincetonReview is a bottoms up survey from students.

WhatWillTheyLearn is the only survey of its kind, a singular yet practical consideration of what students must study before they graduate, as well as helpful feedback on the culture of Free Speech.

These rankings are all resources for parents and students. The conspicuous absence of content knowledge in mainstream rating criteria points towards the bigger problem in institutions of higher education: WHAT should a college graduate be responsible to learn?

If this is important to you, it’s worth checking the guide,


Hofstra University Provides Trigger Warning for Presidential Debate – If a student is not able to attend a presidential debate, should he be in college?


** Read more here: Why Colleges Are Failing our Students


**** What Will They Learn Criteria

Rating Criteria
What Will They Learn?™ rates each college on how many of seven core subjects the institution (or, in many cases, the Arts & Sciences or Liberal Arts divisions) requires. The subjects are: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. The grade is based on a detailed examination of the latest publicly-available online course catalogs at the time of review.

If a subject were merely one of several options (as is often the case with “distribution requirements”), or if a subject were optional for students in either the B.A. or B.S. program, the college or university did not receive credit. The intent is always to determine what institutions require of their students, not what they merely offer or suggest. What Will They Learn?™ also does not grant credit for a subject if the institution uses SAT or ACT scores to exempt students from coursework, since an examination of high school-level skills should not be used to fulfill collegiate requirements.

To determine whether institutions have a solid core curriculum, we defined success in each of the seven subject areas as follows:

Composition. An introductory college writing class focusing on grammar, clarity, argument, and appropriate expository style. Remedial courses may not be used to satisfy a composition requirement. University-administered exams or portfolios are acceptable only when they are used to determine exceptional pre-college preparation for students. Writing-intensive courses, “writing across the curriculum” seminars, and writing for a discipline are not acceptable unless there is an indication of clear provisions for multiple writing assignments, instructor feedback, revision and resubmission of student writing, and explicit language concerning the mechanics of formal writing.

Literature. A comprehensive literature survey or a selection of courses of which a clear majority are surveys and the remainder are literary in nature, although single-author or theme-based in structure. Freshman seminars, humanities sequences, or other specialized courses that include a substantial literature survey component count.

Foreign Language. Competency at the intermediate level, defined as at least three semesters of college-level study in any foreign language. This requirement must apply to all liberal arts degrees, without distinction between B.A. and B.S. degrees, or individual majors within these degrees. Credit is also awarded to schools that require two semesters each of college-level study in two different ancient languages.

U.S. Government or History. A survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and/or topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions. Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region. Rigorous state- or university-administered exams are accepted for credit.

Economics. A course covering basic economic principles, preferably an introductory micro- or macroeconomics course taught by faculty from the economics or business department.

Mathematics. A college-level course in mathematics. Specific topics may vary, but must involve study beyond the level of intermediate algebra and cover topics beyond those typical of a college-preparatory high school curriculum. Remedial courses may not be used as substitutes. Courses in formal or symbolic logic, computer science with significant programming, and linguistics involving formal analysis count.

Natural Science. A course in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physical geography, physics, or environmental science, preferably with a laboratory component. Overly narrow courses, courses with weak scientific content, and courses taught by faculty outside of the science departments do not count. Psychology courses count if they are focused on the biological, chemical, or neuroscientific aspects of the field.

Half-Credit. If a requirement exists from which students choose between otherwise qualifying courses within two What Will They Learn?TM subject areas (e.g., math or science, history or economics, etc.), one-half credit is given for each subject.

With these criteria in mind, we assign grades based on how many of these seven subjects students are required to complete. The grading system is as follows:

A 6-7 core subjects required

B 4-5 core subjects required

C 3 core subjects required

D 2 core subjects required

F 0-1 core subjects required


***** US News & World Report Criteria *******

Ranking Model Indicators, Website for full explanation here

The measures, their weights in the ranking formula and an explanation of each follow.

Graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent):

This measure has two components: six-year graduation rate (80 percent of the score) and first-year retention rate (20 percent).

Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent): The U.S. News ranking formula gives weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence. The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.

Faculty resources (20 percent): Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors, the more they will learn and the more likely they are to graduate. U.S. News uses five factors from the 2015-2016 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction.

Class size is 40 percent of this measure. Schools receive the most credit in this index for their proportion of undergraduate classes with fewer than 20 students. Classes with 20-29 students score second highest; those with 30-39 students, third highest; and those with 40-49 students, fourth highest. Classes that have 50 or more students receive no credit.

Faculty salary (35 percent) is the average faculty pay, plus benefits, during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living using indexes from the consulting firm Runzheimer International. U.S. News also weighs the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields (15 percent), the student-faculty ratio (5 percent) and the proportion of faculty who are full time (5 percent).

Student selectivity (12.5 percent): A school’s academic atmosphere is determined in part by students’ abilities and ambitions.

This measure has three components. U.S. News factors in the admissions test scores for all enrollees who took the critical reading and math portions of the SAT and the composite ACT score (65 percent of the selectivity score).

U.S. News also considers the proportion of enrolled first-year students at National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes or the proportion of enrolled first-year students at Regional Universities and Regional Colleges who graduated in the top quarter of their classes (25 percent).

The third component is the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (10 percent).

Financial resources (10 percent): Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services.

Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent)

Alumni giving rate (5 percent): This reflects the average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, which is an indirect measure of student satisfaction.

To arrive at a school’s rank, U.S. News first calculated the weighted sum of its standardized scores. The final scores were rescaled so that the top school in each category received a value of 100, and the other schools’ weighted scores were calculated as a proportion of that top score. Final scores were rounded to the nearest whole number and ranked in descending order. Schools that are tied appear in alphabetical order and are marked as tied on all ranking tables.

Oct 4, 2016


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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