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A toast -- to smarter priorities on U.S. campuses

Quick! Which American president led troops across the Delaware River on Christmas Day? Don't know? Don't be sad -- recent college grads probably don't either.

Studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have shown that college students have a limited grasp of American history. For example, just over a third can correctly name the low point of the Revolutionary War. (That would be Valley Forge, by the way, where troops were led by that same future president, George Washington.)

This shouldn't surprise us. According to www.WhatWillTheyLearn.com, a study of more than 700 college general education curricula, only 140 schools require a survey course in American history or government. The numbers are similarly dismal for other core courses: nearly 40 percent of schools don't require a math class, fewer than 250 require intermediate foreign language, 160 require a survey of literature and only 25 require economics.

Instead of teaching students basic history, literature and math, colleges are building new buildings. In fact, they compete with one another to build and build and build -- and you, the taxpayer and tuition-check-writer, pay for it. A single square foot of construction can cost $300 -- and construction costs account for less than 30 percent of the lifetime costs of a building. In 2009, a space analysis firm estimated that an eighth of college buildings went up in the decade prior.

How to pay for it? Presidents and provosts borrow money to build buildings that make them look good. But your students don't need them. How do we know? Because they never needed them before. In 1974, schools averaged 160 assignable square feet of space per student. On average, schools now provide nearly three times that.

Meanwhile, you will find few classes in the evenings, on Fridays or even weekday mornings -- to say nothing of the Saturday classes that schools used to require: less education, more empty, costly buildings.

Is this any way to run a university system?

As we head into this new year, with many Americans bracing for another year of financial difficulties, it's time for colleges and universities to work together to save money and truly to educate the next generation of Americans. Some schools and states are doing this. For example, public universities in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania have taken advantage of distance learning technology to establish foreign language consortia: groups of schools will offer a language major or graduate program, saving the state money and producing future workers.

Higher education can provide better education and at a lower costs. Trustees and taxpayers should encourage administrators at their local schools to advance our students, not our debts.

Putting students first: that's what we need. And we need it quick.

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Michael Leo Pomeranz is senior researcher for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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