A new study shows students often know less about our government after four years of college than they did before.
12:00 AM, Oct 6, 2006 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
IT'S NO SECRET that the American electorate is generally uninformed when it comes to politics--only 61 percent can identify the vice president. And it's also not a big surprise that students are no exception--a 2000 study discovered that 99 and 98 percent of college seniors could identify Beavis and Butthead and Snoop Dogg, respectively, but only 26 percent could name (from a list of four choices) the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation, and only 23 percent the "Father of the Constitution."
What's more of a mystery is the impact of higher education--which can deplete as much as $200,000 per pupil from the family budget--on students' actual growth of knowledge in the fundamental area of civics education. That is, up until now. Last Wednesday, survey results unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. revealed that students learned little, if anything, about American history, government, or economics over the course of their four years in college. This may come as a shock to some, especially those who just wrote out that fall tuition check.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing college students with "a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society," teamed up with the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy (formerly the Roper Institute), which conducted a study of 14,094 freshmen and seniors from 50 colleges over the past year. Half of the colleges were chosen randomly; half for various characteristics such as prestige based on US News & World Report rankings, high selectivity, religious affiliation, and percentage of graduates in civic leadership positions.
Unfortunately, among today's generation, the term "civics education" is akin to Rosie the Riveter or gasoline rations, something relegated to our parents' and grandparents' generation. On average, seniors only scored 1.5 percent higher than freshmen, with an average grade of 53.2 percent. A surprising number of students, including those at the top Ivies, knew less when they graduated. For example, 46.2 percent of freshmen knew that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was an "alliance to resist Soviet expansion", compared with only 44.7 percent of seniors. While 56.3 percent of freshmen knew that The Federalist Papers argued for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only 50.6 percent of seniors were aware of this.
Even more jarring is the fact that some of the best schools in the country--Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, Duke, Georgetown, John Hopkins, Stanford, Williams, the University of Chicago--had a lower percentage of knowledge gained than relatively obscure colleges like Rhodes, Colorado State, Calvin, University of New Mexico, University of Mobile, Youngstown State, and Lynchburg. Top state schools including the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Virginia placed in the bottom half of the list. In fact, at 12 of the 16 prestigious schools listed, students demonstrated a negative learning performance--entering freshmen knew more than exiting seniors.
According to Gary Scott, the Senior Research Fellow at ISI's civic literacy program, a test comprised of 60 multiple-choice questions about economics, American history, American government, and major world events was formulated by asking eight scholars from around the country to write questions based on the top 50 themes from the courses they taught in politics, history, and economics. The 400 questions were then culled down to a list of 60, with special care taken to ensure they were not biased in any way. Topics included the nation's founding documents, the structure of American government, historic conflicts, major Supreme Court cases like Marbury, Brown, and Roe, and social movements such as women's suffrage. Six of the questions were taken from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered to high school seniors, and students did even worse on these than the rest of the test.
The study also found that students at schools with a strong core curriculum and required civics courses scored higher overall, and were also more involved citizens; they vote, volunteer with community service activities, and work on political campaigns at a higher rate.
The accuracy of the study was questioned at the press conference, and the responses provided to each probing question were generally convincing. The student bodies at large research universities are on the whole much more diverse in terms of their majors, areas of academic interest, and their national origin, not to mention that the course selection to fulfill basic requirements is much broader, than at a smaller liberal arts college such as Rhodes or Grove City, which ranked first and fourth, respectively.