Just What Do Students Learn?

Many colleges don't gain needed skills, knowledge

By George Leef


September 28, 2006

Getting a college education is frequently touted as the passport to a prosperous and successful life. Americans are apt to believe that college coursework does a great job of building up “human capital,” without which young people will be limited to menial “burger flipping” kinds of work.

It is becoming increasingly plain, however, that many college students don’t gain much at all when it comes to skills and knowledge that count in the job market. College grads who read and write poorly, can’t do elementary math problems, and wind up in low-paying jobs they could have done while in high school are a sad fact of life.

But even if students are not learning a lot that helps them in their careers, surely they are at least learning the kinds of things that will make them good citizens. In decades gone by, most people did not go to college in order to become employable, but rather to expand their horizons. The traditional college curriculum was far more geared toward creating good citizens than good employees.

Alas, a new report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship” released on Tuesday destroys the notion that most American colleges and universities are succeeding in that objective either. It turns out that while some schools still do improve the civic literacy of their students, many others – including some of the nation’s premier institutions – do not.

ISI contracted with the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut (DPP) to study the extent to which colleges and universities succeed in teaching their students about America’s history and its institutions. DPP devised a questionnaire designed to be “a fair measure of important knowledge that students should learn in introductory courses in American history, politics, and economics.” After careful evaluation by survey experts, the 60-question test was given to freshmen and to seniors.

You’d expect that there would be substantial gains in knowledge during students’ years in college reflected in higher scores for seniors. That’s not what the survey found, though.

Of the fifty schools included, the best improvement was a Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., where the mean score for seniors was 11.6 percent higher than the mean score for freshmen. Other schools that showed strong gains included Calvin College in Michigan, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, the University of Colorado and the University of New Mexico. All showed gains of more than 8 percent.

Four North Carolina schools were included. The one that had the highest student gain in civic literacy knowledge was North Carolina Central University. NCCU’s students improved by 4.8 percent, far outpacing the state’s flagship university in Chapel Hill (1.6 percent), Appalachian State (1.7) and Duke, where the seniors actually did worse than the freshmen by 2.3 percent.

Those numbers do not surprise me. In a study I did of the core curricula at the schools in the UNC system, I found that the smaller schools in the UNC system were much stronger in their general education requirements than were the large ones. NCCU requires its students to take the kinds of classes that have traditionally been the pillars of a college education. UNC-Chapel Hill offers its students such a vast array of courses they can take to fulfill their general education requirements that it’s easy to see how many of them could sail through their years without learning much about our history, political institutions, or economy.

Not only do seniors for the most part not show significant improvement in comparison with the freshmen, but the scores are also very low in absolute terms. The average score for all seniors was just 53.2 percent. The best score among seniors was at Harvard – 69.7 percent, closely followed by Princeton and Grove City. At Duke, the seniors scored only 58.3 percent and at Chapel Hill, 56.5 percent.

The ISI paper draws this depressing conclusion: “So even though students arrive on campus with inadequate knowledge of America’s history and institutions and in great need of improved civic literacy, institutions of higher education in America do little to facilitate this learning.” Combine the weak education in civic literacy with the poor showing in “the 3 Rs” and you have to wonder if there is really much “education” in higher education. Maybe it’s mostly a very costly “experience” for young people – one that leads to an educational credential but little gain in beneficial skills and knowledge.

What is to be done? ISI’s authors put forth the following recommendations. First, colleges and universities should assess the effectiveness of their teaching about America’s history and institutions. Second, they should improve the number and quality of required courses in history, political science and economics. Third, the stewards of higher education should do more to hold their schools accountable. Fourth, students and parents should seek out those institutions that put appropriate emphasis on these important areas. And fifth, colleges and universities should build more centers of academic excellence.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” This study makes it clear that we have something to worry about in the quality of education many of our young people are receiving.


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