America’s Founders were convinced American freedom could survive only if each generation understood its founding principles and the sacrifices made to maintain it.
Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions asks: Is American higher education doing its duty to prepare the next generation to maintain our legacy of liberty?
In fall 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP), commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) National Civic Literacy Board, conducted a survey of some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. Students were asked 60 multiple-choice questions to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: America’s history, government, international relations, and market economy. The disappointing results were published by ISI in fall 2006 in The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions. Seniors, on average, failed all four subjects, and their overall average score was 53.2%.
This report follows up on The Coming Crisis in Citizenship. It is based on an analysis of the results of a second survey of some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges conducted by the research team at UConn in the fall of 2006. The results of this second survey corroborate and extend the results of the first. Seniors once again failed all four subjects.
The question now is: Will legislators, donors, trustees, parents, and other decision-makers hold colleges accountable?
College Seniors Failed a Basic Test on America’s History and Institutions.
The average college senior knows astoundingly little about America’s history, government, international relations and market economy, earning an “F” on the American civic literacy exam with a score of 54.2%. Harvard seniors did best, but their overall average was 69.6%, a disappointing D+.
Colleges Stall Student Learning about America.
From kindergarten through 12th grade, the average student gains 2.3 points per year in civic knowledge, almost twice the annual gain of the average college student. Students at some colleges did learn more per year than students in grade school, demonstrating that it is possible.
- Eastern Connecticut State, one of 25 colleges randomly selected for this year’s survey, was the best performer, increasing civic knowledge by 9.65 points. Rhodes College, which increased civic knowledge by 7.42 points, was the best performer among 18 elite colleges surveyed both this year and last. Rhodes was also the best overall performer last year.
America’s Most Prestigious Universities Performed the Worst.
Colleges that do well in popular rankings typically do not do well in advancing civic knowledge.
- Generally, the higher U.S. News & World Report ranks a college, the lower it ranks here in civic learning. At four colleges U.S. News ranked in its top 12 (Cornell, Yale, Duke, and Princeton), seniors scored lower than freshmen. These colleges are elite centers of “negative learning.” Cornell was the third-worst performer last year and the worst this year.
- Surveyed colleges ranked by Barron’s imparted only about one-third the civic learning of colleges overlooked by Barron’s.
Inadequate College Curriculum Contributes to Failure.
The number of history, political science, and economics courses a student takes helps determine, together with the quality of these courses, whether he acquires knowledge about America during college. Students generally gain one point of civic knowledge for each civics course taken. The average senior, however, has taken only four such courses.
Greater Learning about America Goes Hand-in-Hand with More Active Citizenship.
Students who gain more civic knowledge during college are more likely to vote and engage in other civic activities than students who gain less.
Additional Finding 1:
Higher Quality Family Life Contributes to More Learning about America.
College seniors whose families engaged in frequent conversations about current events and history, whose parents were married and living together, and who came from homes where English was the primary language all tended to learn more than students who lacked these advantages.
Additional Finding 2:
American Colleges Under-Serve Minority Students.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently argued that the civil rights movement was rooted in America’s founding documents as well as key historical events and decisions. American colleges today are not helping minorities learn this heritage. On average, minority seniors (Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Multiracial) answered less than half the exam questions correctly and made no significant overall gain in civic knowledge during college. Civic-knowledge gain among whites was six times greater.
Additional Finding 3:
American Colleges Don’t Teach Their Foreign Students about America.
The average foreign student at an American college learns nothing about America’s history and institutions. Colleges thus squander an opportunity to foster greater understanding of America’s institutions in an increasingly hostile world.
QUESTIONS OF ACCOUNTABILITY
1: Are Parents and Students Getting Their Money’s Worth from College Costs?
The least-expensive colleges increase civic knowledge more than the most expensive.
2: Are Taxpayers and Legislators Getting Their Money’s Worth from College Subsidies?
Colleges enjoying larger subsidies in the form of government-funded grants to students tend to increase civic knowledge less than colleges enjoying smaller such subsidies.
3: Are Alumni and Philanthropists Getting Their Money’s Worth from the Donations they make to Colleges?
Some of the worst-performing colleges also have the largest, most rapidly growing endowments. These include Yale, Penn, Duke, Princeton, and Cornell.
4: Are College Trustees Getting Their Money’s Worth from College Presidents?
Six of the 10 worst-performing colleges also ranked among the top 10 for the salaries they paid their presidents. These include Penn, Cornell, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers and Duke, which paid their presidents $500,000 or more.
5: Are Colleges Encouraging Students to Take Enough Courses about America’s History and Institutions and Then Assessing the Quality of These Courses?
The average senior had completed only four courses in history, political science, and economics. But more courses taken did not always mean more knowledge gained. At eight colleges, each additional civics course a student completed, on average, decreased his civic knowledge.