While College Fails to Adequately Transmit Civic Knowledge, It Influences Opinion on Polarizing Social Issues
American colleges generally fail to significantly increase civic knowledge among their students, but they do influence student opinion on a narrow set of polarizing social issues.
In three successive years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducted surveys to determine the impact a college education has on civic knowledge. In 2006, ISI gave approximately 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at fifty colleges nationwide a sixty-question multiple-choice exam on fundamental knowledge of America’s history and institutions. The average freshman scored 51.7% and the average senior scored 53.2%. In 2007, ISI tested another set of over 14,000 college freshmen and seniors. Similarly, the average freshman scored 50.4% and the average senior scored 54.2%.
In 2008, ISI widened the field of respondents to adults to measure the independent impact of college on the acquisition of civic knowledge, and how a college education and civic knowledge independently influence a person’s views. A random, representative sample of 2,508 American adults was given a thirty-three-question basic civics test. The average college graduate in this sample scored 57%, correctly answering only four questions more than the average high school graduate.
If earning a college degree does not significantly increase a student’s knowledge of America’s history and institutions, what impact does it have?
The 2008 survey asked respondents forty-one demographic questions, as well as whether they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, were neutral, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed with each of thirty-nine propositions that covered a broad range of subjects, including American ideals and institutions, higher education, immigration and diversity, culture and society, religion and faith, and market economy and public policy.
Multivariate regression analyses were used to determine whether earning a bachelor’s degree in and of itself had a statistically significant influence on a respondent’s opinions on any of the thirty-nine propositions. It turned out that college independently influenced a person’s opinion on only five of the thirty-nine—four of the five involving highly polarizing issues.
|Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Influences Opinions on Five Propositions|
|Multivariate regression analyses determined that earning a bachelor’s degree has an independent, statistically significant impact on a person’s opinions on five of the thirty-nine survey propositions. Below are these propositions, ranked by the strength of the influence that earning a bachelor’s degree exerts on a person’s opinion on each, and whether it moved a person toward agreeing or disagreeing with the proposition.|
|Rank and proposition College makes you more likely to|
|1||Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally.||Agree|
|2||Public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in school.||Disagree|
|3||Abortion should be available at any stage and for any reason.||Agree|
|4||With hard work and perseverance anyone can succeed in America.||Disagree|
|5||The Bible is the Word of God.||Disagree|
If two people otherwise share the same basic characteristics, including equal civic knowledge, the one who graduates from college will be more likely than the one who does not graduate from college to:
- Favor same same-sex marriage; and
- Favor abortion on demand.
Similarly, all else being equal, a college graduate will be less likely to:
- Believe anyone can succeed in America with hard work and perseverance;
- Favor teacher-led prayer in public schools; and
- Believe the Bible is the Word of God.
Graduating from college does not significantly impact a person’s views on economic issues. It does not influence a person’s opinion on whether government regulation does more good than harm, on whether taxing the rich to help the poor reduces work and investment, or on whether prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets.
Although 72% of Americans agree that colleges should prepare citizen leaders by teaching students America’s history, key texts, and institutions, earning a bachelor’s degree has no significant impact on whether a person believes America’s Founding documents remain relevant. Given these public expectations, and the clear civic purposes surrounding American higher education, this lack of collegiate influence is surprising.
|Average Agreement by Educational Attainment|
|Below are the five propositions where earning a college degree influences a person’s opinion, this time arrayed by educational attainment. The more degrees a person earns, the more opinion shifts on each of the polarizing propositions.|
|Rank and Proposition||High School||College||Masters||PH.D.|
|1||Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally.||24.6%||39.1%||45.6%||42.8%
|2||Public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in school.||56.6||39.4||30.3||17.0|
|3||Abortion should be available at any stage and for any reason.||21.0||20.8||24.9||32.6|
|4||With hard work and perseverance anyone can succeed in America.||75.2||67.8||64.2||50.8|
|5||The Bible is the Word of God.||74.2||63.5||52.0||45.9|