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Press Release

Contact: Debra Humphreys
Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs
202-387-3760 ext. 422

Liberal Education Outcomes Widely Endorsed as Essential For Success, But Evidence Sparse on College Achievement, New Report Suggests

Washington, DC—November 4, 2005—The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released today the first report from its new campaign, Liberal Education and America’s Promise: Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes to College.

The report, Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on Student Achievement in College (pdf), documents the emerging consensus among educators, the business community, and the accreditation community about a set of key learning outcomes that are essential for all college students in the 21st century. But it also shows that little national data is available on how well students are achieving these key outcomes. The report contrasts data from student surveys with what little evidence exists from nationally administered tests. Authors of the report suggest that the sophisticated outcomes expected from a college education and that will be essential to students’ success in the new global economy and in their roles as citizens of a participatory democracy are, in fact, particularly difficult to assess with standardized tests. They note further, however, that there is a wide chasm between students’ own perceptions of their gains in learning and the results of the few national studies that measure math, critical thinking, and writing skills. For instance:

  • While 77 percent of students report significant improvements in their writing skills in college, standardized tests show that only 11 percent of seniors scored at a “proficient” level in writing.
  • Standardized test results indicate that only 6 percent of seniors graduate at the “proficient” level in critical thinking skills, while 87 percent of students believe that college contributed a great deal to improving their skills in this area.
  • There is no national data on many other important outcomes of college. For instance, there in no national data on students’ knowledge of history or science, their ethical reasoning skills; their intercultural and global knowledge and skills, their information literacy, or their ability to work in teams and apply knowledge from one area to another.

Previously released public opinion research was also presented at the forum. This research indicates that today’s high school and college students are unaware of this emerging consensus or how important achievement of key liberal education outcomes will be to their futures and the future of our diverse democracy. It also shows that one of the most commonly espoused goals for higher education—preparing students for engaged citizenship—was the least important goal for college-bound students and college juniors and seniors in four different regions of the country.

“This report should be a wake-up call to the academic community and to our nation’s leaders,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “There is a huge disconnect between the learning we value as a community and that will be essential to our nation’s economic success and our ability to provide basic evidence about how well students are doing on key outcomes. When combined with the results of our research with today’s students, this report reveals how much we need to do to live up to our own educational ideals.”

AAC&U’s LEAP campaign was launched in January 2005 in order to champion the value of a liberal education—for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality. The campaign shines a spotlight on what really matters in college—the kinds of learning that will empower today’s students to succeed and make a difference in the 21st century. Through the campus action part of the campaign, AAC&U works with colleges and universities as they develop, improve, publicize, and institutionalize educational innovations that demonstrably help students achieve key liberal education outcomes. As part of this effort, AAC&U is assisting campuses in developing more effective methods of assessment that will provide data on how well students are achieving more than just basic skills, but the sophisticated capacities they will need in today’s turbulent economy. 130 campuses have signed on so far to participate in the campaign.

Two other new AAC&U publications were also released at the event, including The Art and Science of Assessing General Education Outcomes, published as part of AAC&U’s Greater Expectations initiative, and Advancing Liberal Education: Assessment Practices on Campus.

The Forum at which AAC&U released its report was co-sponsored by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA has also addressed the issue of student learning outcomes as it relates to institutional and programmatic accreditation. It has developed publications and workshops on how accrediting organizations, working with their accredited institutions and programs, can incorporate appropriate expectations of evidence of student learning in accreditation standards. CHEA published Accreditation and Student Learning Outcomes: A Point of Departure in 2001. This document laid out fundamental issues and challenges for accrediting organizations seeking to strengthen their capacity to work with student learning outcomes. In 2003, CHEA published its Statement of Mutual Responsibilities for Student Learning Outcomes: Accreditation, Institutions and Programs articulating key principles to be used when focusing on accreditation and outcomes.

AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality, and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises more than 1,000 accredited public and private colleges and universities of every type and size.

AAC&U functions as a catalyst and facilitator, forging links among presidents, administrators, and faculty members who are engaged in institutional and curricular planning. Its mission is to reinforce the collective commitment to liberal education at both the national and local levels and to help individual institutions keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges.

Information about AAC&U membership, programs, and publications can be found at

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is an institutional membership organization that coordinates institutional and programmatic accreditation in the United States. CHEA is a national advocate and institutional voice for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation. CHEA represents the interests of its members to the federal government on matters of accreditation and academic quality, reviews and affirms(“recognizes”) the quality of accrediting organizations and provides a range of membership and other services. Founded in 1996, approximately 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities are now members of CHEA. For additional information, please contact CHEA at or visit the CHEA Website at