“What Will They Learn?” is a report released annually by the American Council of Trustees, a non-profit organization that rates universities’ general education programs. LSU’s general education program received a D rating from the 2020-2021 report.
The ACTA grades universities on whether they require all students — regardless of major — to take courses in the following subjects: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science.
Universities don’t receive credit for a subject if students can bypass general education requirements with their ACT/SAT scores.
They also don’t receive credit if a subject is one of several options — students being able to choose from a list of courses in the humanities or social sciences, for example.
LSU only requires students to take courses in two of the seven categories: mathematics and science.
The "What Will They Learn?" project encourages colleges and universities to strengthen their general education programs and prepare students for rewarding careers, engaged citizenship and meaningful community participation, according to the ACTA website.
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Matthew Lee said the University's general education program allows students flexibility and timeliness.
“We may have some opportunities for students to place a little bit differently but that’s because we’re trying to ensure they’re making progress toward their degree in a timely manner and not making them double back and go take skills courses that they already have the competency in,” Lee said.
Lee said the University has to accommodate a broad array of students who are generally coming in at a high level of proficiency.
“We work hard to treat our students as adults and give them some choice in their intellectual journey,” Lee said.
Universities that are stricter with general education requirements, such as Tulane, Southeastern University and the University of New Orleans, scored higher on the “What Will They Learn” evaluation, with each school receiving a B rating.
Despite the low grade, LSU professors agreed the flexibility of LSU’s general education program was a strength of the University rather than a weakness.
“I think one of the advantages that LSU has is, in fact, its integrative learning core — its gen. ed. Program,” said English professor Chris Barrett. “It’s really helpful to protect time in everyone’s college schedule for people to explore new areas of study, I think that’s one of the best things LSU does.”
Mass communication professor Robert Mann agreed with Barrett.
“Maybe we’re expecting the school to do the kind of work that is better done by a small liberal arts school because we can’t be all things to all people,” Mann said.
The kind of thinking and interpersonal skills that are necessary for students when they graduate can be found in an array of courses at the University, according to Mann.
“If we teach students how to think, how to think critically--and I think a lot of courses do that — you don’t just learn critical thinking in a political science course,” Mann said. “Every discipline is going to have aspects of critical thinking and thinking through an issue or a problem; how to apply evidence, how to gather data, how to assess data.”
Lee said there are other metrics that better encapsulate the effectiveness of the University’s academics.
“At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding,” Lee said. “Our metrics in terms of median career earnings are very strong. We have very high rates of admission to graduate school and professional school.”
A student who earns a bachelor’s degree from the University has on average early-career earnings of $55,400 and mid-career earnings of $104,500 – the highest among all public universities in Louisiana, according to Payscale’s 2019 report.
Other college evaluations, such as Niche and U.S. News, gave LSU more favorable ratings than the ACTA’s report.
Although there are benefits to lenient general education requirements, some LSU professors said the subject matter in optional courses is important for all students to understand.
Economics professor Areendam Chanda said economic literacy is important for college students.
“Graduating from school and going into college you start making a lot of budgeting decisions, a lot of financial decisions about how you spend your money,” Chanda said. “College debt is a huge problem; student loans are crippling millennials right now.”
Chanda said students should consider important questions, such as the potential risk of borrowing money and how the interest rate is relative to the inflation rate.
“These are important questions,” Chanda said. “Many of them are not very difficult to understand once you work your way through, and yet they are really important given this complex web of decision-making we have to do during our lives.”
Chanda also said having a basic understanding of how the economy works is important in being civically engaged.
“Right now we are in the election cycle. College students are going to vote — and when you read the news about tariffs or how much the deficit is, well, what exactly does this mean? What is the context?" Chanda said.
“How is it that the government finances its expenditures? What does the federal reserve bank actually do in terms of interest rates? A lot of this is not obvious knowledge.”
Linguistics and Spanish professor Rafael Orozco said learning a foreign language benefits students.
“The cognitive benefits are immense,” Orozco said. “Your brain cognitively becomes more efficient and more flexible. That added cognitive flexibility is important for you as a student because you learn faster and acquire knowledge.”
Orozco said learning another language can actually improve your native language; the best way of saying something in a foreign language, is to think about the best way you would say that thing in your first language.
“That cognitive flexibility comes in handy for anything you’re going to learn,” Orozco said. “Your interpersonal skills also improve because if you’re fluent in another language you can deal with people who think differently. You expand your thinking repertoire.
“At the end of the day, with a foreign language under your belt, you’re going to be a more efficient student.”