Sept. 26, 2006 - Does going to college make students better-educated citizens? A new study of more than 14,000 randomly selected college students from across the country concludes that the answer is often no. Not only did many respondents at the 50 participating colleges fail to answer half of the basic civics questions correctly, but at such elite schools as Cornell, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, the college freshmen scored higher than the college seniors. Josiah Bunting, III, chairman of the National Civic Literacy Board of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), the nonprofit that funded the study, decried “the students’ dismal scores” as providing “high-quality evidence of… nothing less than a coming crisis in American citizenship.” Mike Ratliff, a senior vice president at the ISI spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Pat Wingert about the study’s findings, which were released today.
NEWSWEEK: What was the point of this study?
Mike Ratliff: We were really concerned about whether colleges and universities were teaching enough about the workings of American democracy and institutions to enable the next generation of leaders to be effective and informed citizens. So we had a representative sampling of students take a test to find out what they had learned about our basic institutions.
How did you pick the participating schools?
We surveyed 14,000 students at 50 schools as part of the largest study ever done on this topic. The University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy picked 25 schools on a random basis. Then we oversampled among the most selective schools, and added 25 schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
What did you find?
Basically, we found that the freshmen arriving on campus were not very well prepared to take on their future responsibility as citizens. They earned a failing grade on our test. [The average participating freshman got 51.7 percent of the questions correct.] But after four to five years in college, we found that seniors, as a group, scored only 1.5 percent better than the entering freshmen.
What was most surprising was the finding that at 16 of the 50 schools, the freshmen did better than the seniors. We were startled by the extent of what we call “negative learning”. When courses are not offered or required, the students forget what they knew when they entered as freshmen, and that 16 included some of the best schools in the country, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Duke.
What should college students know that they don’t know?
We looked at each field: government, American history, economics and international affairs, and came up with 60 themes. We then had classroom faculty come up with 60 questions that covered those specific areas that every citizen should know something about, like the thinking of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King and what part of the century the American Revolution and Civil War were fought.
Why does this matter?
It matters because we want to leave an America to our children and grandchildren that will continue to offer the freedom and opportunities we enjoyed ourselves. If you don’t understand how a democracy operates or what the Bill of Rights guarantees, you may not be able to do your part to preserve these institutions into the future.
Is there a correlation between civics knowledge and being a good citizen?
Perhaps the most encouraging finding of this study was confirmation that knowing your history and becoming an engaged citizen goes hand in hand. Those who were taking the most courses and learned the most were the most likely to be registered to vote and to engage in other civic and community activities.
Based on these results, would you conclude that a college education doesn’t necessarily make a student a better-educated citizen?
I think higher education is letting down the students that have been entrusted to them, because they are not advancing their knowledge of American government or its institutions. However, we did find that on some campuses—like Rhodes College and Grove City College, that the amount of learning that was taking place was disproportionate to someplace like Harvard or Princeton. These are campuses that value classroom education and the professors are more focused on making sure the students are learning.
Did the students attending the more prestigious colleges start out with higher scores than students attending other types of colleges?
Yes, they started out with higher scores [as freshman, they got 60-70 percent of the questions correct.] But the seniors at Rhodes and Grove caught up with many of them by senior year, while the scores of many of the students at the prestigious schools dropped by senior year. We think everyone’s knowledge should have advanced.
Many colleges no doubt think that civics is something students are supposed to learn in high school.
This should be approached like math or any other subject. You learn some math in kindergarten, and then get more sophisticated math in elementary school and in high school. Every level should advance your knowledge. We don’t agree with the notion that students should study American history in 5th and 11th grade and then never again. Students need to be exposed to things repeatedly in life, and they need to get an appropriate education at every point. The colleges have a responsibility to ensure that their graduates understand our history and what it means to be an American. They are failing to such a degree that their students are leaving their institutions having forgotten what they picked up in high school.
Is this a new problem? Or has it always been this way?
I think there has been a deterioration of rigor in college and university curriculums. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, published a book last year called “Our Underachieving Colleges,” and it expressed his concern that students were not getting the kind of education colleges and universities committed to in previous generations.
What’s the solution?
We don’t have a cookie cutter solution, but we do believe that every college and university should commit themselves to assessing the effectiveness of their educational program, and we think there is no better way to do it than by testing freshmen, and then after they’ve taken courses at the college level, test them again as seniors, to see what they have learned over the period of time they spent on campus. We would also urge legislators and other key decision makers to hold colleges and universities accountable for effective civic education.