America’s Most Prestigious Universities Performed the Worst.
When Woodrow Wilson spoke at Princeton’s 150th anniversary in 1896, he titled his speech “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” a phrase that became a school motto. Noting that during the American Revolution Princeton became a “seminary for statesmen rather than a quiet seat of academic learning,” he argued that a central purpose of higher education is to develop citizens capable of steering the nation into the future because they have a steady grip on its past. “The college should serve the state as its organ of recollection, its seat of vital memory,” Wilson said.
Yet, in this era, when it comes to teaching about America’s history and institutions, the nation’s most competitive, expensive, and highly rated colleges do not perform as well as less competitive, less expensive, and lower-rated colleges.
Either America’s elite colleges place little value on teaching about America, or they do a bad job of it.
Seats of Forgetfulness
Every year, U.S. News & World Report ranks “America’s Best Colleges,” relying on “quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality.” These include such things as how academic professionals subjectively assess a college on a scale of one to five and the average rate of alumni giving. The U.S. News rankings, however, do not take into account any measure of the knowledge or skills that students acquire at a college.
The American civic literacy exam— which does measure the knowledge college students acquire in four subjects—reveals that a number of the colleges ranked highly by U.S. News not only failed to increase student knowledge, they reduced it. These schools are not seats of “vital memory;” to use Wilson’s term; they are seats of forgetfulness.
- Typically, the higher a college ranks in U.S. News, the lower it ranks in civic learning. The 25 colleges in ISI’s survey ranked lowest by U.S. News increased student knowledge about America by an average of 5.2 points. The 25 colleges in the survey ranked highest by U.S. News increased student knowledge about America by only 2.3 points.
- At eight colleges, including four rated among the dozen best by U.S. News (Cornell, Yale, Duke, and Princeton), seniors scored lower than freshmen. These colleges are elite centers of “negative learning.”
- U.S. News ranked Woodrow Wilson’s Princeton the nation’s top college, but this year’s ISI survey ranks Princeton as the fifth-worst school for civic learning. The combined results of this year’s and last year’s surveys show Princeton seniors performing at virtually the same level as entering freshmen.
- U.S. News ranked Cornell as America’s 12th-best college, but the ISI survey ranks it as the worst performer in civic learning. Cornell seniors failed the exam with an average score almost five points lower than Cornell freshmen.
Gaining admission to one of the nation’s most competitive colleges also does not guarantee a student will learn much about America. Barron’s lists 15 colleges in the civic literacy survey among the nation’s “most competitive.” This means they accepted “only the best and brightest students.” The average senior at these schools, however, scored a disappointing 62.5% on the civic literacy exam, a mere 1.7 points higher than the average freshman at these schools. Students at the schools in the survey that were overlooked by Barron’s gained on average 4.6 points in civic knowledge.
While students enrolling as freshmen at Ivy League schools are more knowledgeable than freshmen enrolling at less renowned schools, the American civic literacy exam demonstrates that Ivy League students typically learn less about America during college. In fact, they learn virtually nothing. The average score among Ivy League seniors was only one tenth of one percentage point higher than the average score among Ivy League freshmen—a statistically meaningless margin.
ALL CIVICS COURSES ARE NOT EQUAL
|COLLEGE RANK BY CIVIC COURSE QUALITY|
|Rank by Course Quality*||School||Civic Value Added||Mean Courses Taken **||Course Quality (Civic Knowledge Gained per Civic Course)*|
|1.||Concordia University (NE)||9.00||2.42||3.72|
|2.||Marian College (WI)||9.44||3.24||2.91|
|3.||St. Cloud State University (MN)||8.59||3.21||2.68|
|4.||Murray State University (KY)||9.20||3.58||2.57|
|5.||Eastern Connecticut State University||9.65||3.80||2.54|
|6.||Mississippi State University||8.36||3.72||2.25|
|7.||Pfeiffer University (NC)||8.25||3.94||2.09|
|8.||Iowa State University||7.66||3.71||2.06|
|9.||University of Mississippi||7.46||3.92||1.90|
|10.||Illinois State University||8.19||4.34||1.89|
|11.||Mt. Vernon Nazarene University (OH)||4.56||2.55||1.79|
|12.||University of Southern Maine||6.11||3.60||1.69|
|13.||Idaho State University||6.39||3.86||1.66|
|14.||Smith College (MA)||7.44||4.56||1.63|
|15.||University of Wisconsin||6.30||3.86||1.63|
|16.||University of Montana||6.62||4.30||1.54|
|17.||Rhodes College (TN)||7.42||5.45||1.36|
|18.||University of Minnesota-Twin Cities||4.32||3.17||1.36|
|19.||University of Washington||4.25||3.15||1.35|
|20.||University of Florida||4.43||3.43||1.29|
|21.||Calvin College (MI)||4.46||3.56||1.25|
|22.||Grove City College (PA)||3.61||2.96||1.22|
|24.||University of North Carolina||4.42||3.95||1.12|
|25.||University of Notre Dame||5.59||5.48||1.02|
|26.||University of Michigan||4.32||4.41||0.98|
|27.||Carnegie Mellon University||2.84||2.97||0.96|
|28.||University of Rochester (NY)||3.63||3.91||0.93|
|29.||St. Thomas University (FL)||2.75||3.07||0.89|
|30.||Gonzaga University (WA)||4.16||4.70||0.88|
|31.||Georgia College and State University||3.40||4.36||0.78|
|32.||University of Georgia||3.28||4.26||0.77|
|33.||Texas State University-San Marcos||2.74||4.31||0.64|
|34.||Wheaton College (IL)||2.12||3.33||0.64|
|35.||Washington & Lee University (VA)||4.53||7.62||0.59|
|36.||George Mason University (VA)||2.69||4.54||0.59|
|37.||Texas A&M International University||2.71||5.16||0.52|
|38.||University of Virginia||2.33||5.11||0.46|
|39.||Bowdoin College (ME)||3.36||7.55||0.44|
|41.||University of Pennsylvania||0.84||5.20||0.16|
|42.||University of Massachusetts-Amherst||0.56||3.57||0.16|
|43.||University of California-Berkeley||-0.76||3.68||-0.21|
|44.||Oakwood College (AL)||-0.48||2.00||-0.24|
|48.||St. John’s University||-1.87||2.80||-0.67|
|* Civic course quality is estimated by average civic learning at a college divided by the average number of relevant courses taken by students.
** Relevant civic courses taken by seniors surveyed based on the number of history, economics, and political science courses as reported by the students.