Last year, the foundation’s trustees commissioned a study to check on their investment. What they learned troubled them.
Students at liberal arts schools are not being exposed to a comprehensive core curriculum of classes, the study told them when it was released Jan. 30. And the cost of getting a degree has increased so much that many are priced out of the dream altogether.
The trustees voted to suspend grants to undergraduate liberal arts schools in Virginia until they come up with a plan to ensure the funding goes to the best-performing institutions.
The trustees’ top concern was an erosion in the traditional core curriculum, which the foundation’s president, retired judge Richard S. Bray, called “foundationally important to a liberal arts education.” As defined in the study, the core curriculum consists of the composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and natural or physical science classes that liberal arts students take in their first two undergraduate years.
“If college students don’t get that core before they go into their major,” Bray said, “how can they possibly claim to be educated?”
The Beazley Foundation, started in 1948 by Portsmouth philanthropist Fred W. Beazley and his family, has assets of about $47 million and distributes about $3 million in grants a year, with about 50 percent of it going toward education.
The study was conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit that has done similar studies of colleges across the country.
The ACTA examined all 15 public four-year colleges and universities in Virginia and 24 private institutions across the state.
It looked for the seven subjects that have historically been required of undergraduate liberal arts students.
It found that about half of the schools required three or fewer of those subjects. Four of the schools required just one.
None of the schools required economics, and only two – James Madison University and Regent University – required U.S. government or history.
Fewer than half required college-level foreign language.
Instead of the core subjects, many colleges allow students to pick from a “smorgasbord” of courses listed under subject areas outside their major, Bray said.
Social Dance in the United States fulfilled the writing requirement at one Virginia college, according to the ACTA.
So did Hip Hop Performances, The Broadway Musicals of Stephen Sondheim and Deciphering a Meal.
“Many of the courses we see make very interesting electives,” said Michael B. Poliakoff of the ACTA, “but the focus should be what students need rather than what they want.”
He said a comprehensive general education gives graduates a better chance of success in today’s world, where people often change jobs.
“We all have our hobbies and interests,” he said. “But we’re talking about an education for life – and at a time when the stakes are extremely high.”
Bray, a retired Court of Appeals judge, had attended annual symposiums of the ACTA and heard about nationwide trends away from the traditional requirements. The Beazley Foundation board decided to see whether Virginia’s colleges were part of that change.
They paid $20,000 for the study and an additional $13,000 to publish and distribute copies to legislators, foundations, colleges and others – a process that is still under way.
“I don’t suggest that this is some sort of landmark study, but it certainly is a guide – a good starting point to indicate there are some issues of concern,” Bray said.
Beyond what students may not be learning, trustees got a sobering look at the cost of earning a degree in Virginia.
Almost half of the institutions studied had tuition and fees representing more than 40 percent of median household income in Virginia.
“To pay for this increase, students and families borrow more and more money,” the study stated.
Carol Simpson, provost at Old Dominion University, said the recession is making it harder on families to pay for college education and for young people to get loans.
The study noted flagging graduation rates, and Simpson made a correlation between the two: The majority of ODU’s full-time students are working at least 20 hours a week, she said.
But she took exception to the study’s conclusions on ODU’s core curriculum. For example, she said, the report didn’t take into account that some students are exempt from foreign-language requirements based on high school studies. The study’s statement that ODU falls short of the math requirement “because the content could be satisfied with courses with little college-level math content” is unjustified, she said.
“To say that we sort of somehow brushed aside the requirement for math is, I think, very misleading,” she said.
Tony Atwater, president of Norfolk State University, said the study made some valid points and reflects efforts to balance the importance of liberal arts with the changing marketplace.
“I think we have to help our students be able to have courses that relate to certain skill areas, such as new technologies,” he said.
But Atwater also cautioned against judging a course by its title alone.
Bray said he knows the study does not tell the whole story.
For example, the College of William and Mary did not require composition. But Bray said he was confident there were such rigid writing requirements in most classes that “composition is woven into the curriculum.”
Angelica D. Light, president of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, commended the study. She said her organization, too, has long been concerned about the preparedness of young people for college-level work.
She called the study a “wake-up call for Virginia’s colleges and universities, both public and private, and for the broader public.”