College Adds Little to Civic Knowledge
Earning a college degree does little to increase knowledge of America’s history, key texts, and institutions.
The average score on the American civic literacy exam for those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree is 57%, or an “F.” That is only 13 percentage points higher than the average score earned by those who hold high school, but not college, diplomas.
College graduates in all age brackets—except Baby Boomers (ages 45 to 64)—typically earn an “F” on the exam. Baby Boomers who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree score an average of 61%, or a “D-.”
On average, Americans who ended their formal education when they graduated from high school correctly answer 14.4 of the 33 questions on the exam. Those who ended their formal education when they graduated from college typically answer 18.9 of the questions correctly. An American with a four-year college degree, in other words, typically gains only about one correct answer for each year in college.
Only one in five college graduates earns a “C” or better on the exam, and only 42% of those with graduate degrees earn a “C” or better. Thirty-two percent of those with graduate degrees fail.The average score for the college graduates who took ISI’s American civic literacy exam was 57%, an “F.” That was only 13 percentage points higher than the 44% earned by those who hold high school, but not college, diplomas.
Holding a college diploma does not guarantee that a person will know the most fundamental facts of American history or how our system of government works.
|Average score by highest academic degree attained|
|Highest Degree||Average Score|
|No High School||35|
|Baby Boomers Do Best:
They earn a “D-”
|Average score by age for those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree|
|18 to 24||59%|
|25 to 34||54|
|35 to 44||54|
|45 to 64||61|
|Public, Private, and Religious Colleges Do Equally Poorly|
|Average score by type of four-year college for those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree|
|College Type||Average Score|
|Private Secular University||58|
|Do America’s Founding Documents Still Matter?|
|Among respondents who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree, those who think America’s founding documents still matter score higher on the test than those who don’t.|
|Agree or strongly agree that America’s founding documents remain relevant||60%|
|Disagree or strongly disagree that America’s founding documents remain relevant||48|
- Thirty-six percent of college graduates cannot name all three branches of government, required knowledge on the U.S. citizenship exam. Remarkably, that is the same percentage of first-time citizenship applicants who answer this question correctly.*
- Only 26% of college graduates know that the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from Thomas Jefferson’s letters. Fifty-two percent falsely believe it is found in the Constitution.
- Only 33% of college graduates know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.
- Eighteen percent of college graduates cannot name a single right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- Only 54% of college graduates correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individual citizens create, exchange, and control goods and services. Thirteen percent believe it is a system in which demand and supply are decided through majority vote.
- Thirty-two percent of college graduates falsely believe the president has the power to declare war.
- Only 24% of college graduates know that the main issue in the Lincoln–Douglas debates was whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new territories.
- College graduates also do little better than high school graduates in distinguishing between the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. Only 24% of college graduates (compared to 21% of high school graduates) know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from President Lincoln’s immortal speech. Forty-eight percent of college graduates (compared to 41% of high school graduates) incorrectly believe it comes from the Declaration.
American taxpayers are extraordinarily generous with American colleges. In fiscal year 2005—according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics—federal, state, and local government gave $114 billion to public colleges and $17 billion to private colleges.Thirty-six percent of college graduates cannot name all three branches of government, required knowledge on the U.S. citizenship exam. Remarkably, that is the same percentage of first-time citizenship applicants who answer this question correctly.
What do the taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford to send their own children to college, receive in return for this investment? Given that 71% believe colleges should prepare citizen leaders by teaching students America’s history, key texts, and institutions, it is clear that they are not getting what they expect or what they deserve.
* U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Naturalization Test Redesign Project Report, January 2008.