The Shaping of the American Mind: The Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs is the fourth major study from ISI’s civic literacy initiative on the relationship between higher education, civic knowledge, and citizenship.
Conventional wisdom holds that there is a strong connection between how much people know and how much college education they receive—the more college, the more knowledge. ISI’s research, however, demonstrates that on most campuses, this seemingly obvious correlation is quite marginal where knowledge of America’s history and institutions is concerned.
In 2006 and 2007, ISI administered a sixty-question multiple-choice exam on knowledge of American history, government, foreign affairs, and market economics to over 14,000 college freshmen and seniors nationwide. In both years, the average freshman and average senior failed the exam.
In 2008, ISI expanded the field of study to measure the average independent impact of college on the acquisition of civic literacy among Americans of all ages. A random, representative sample of 2,508 American adults was surveyed to allow comparisons between those with and without college degrees. Respondents were asked thirty-three questions (click here to see the questions and take the quiz yourself), many drawn from U.S. naturalization exams and U.S. Department of Education high school progress tests (NAEP). Seventy-one percent of Americans failed this basic test. The overall average score was only 49%, with college graduates also failing at 57%.
If earning a bachelor’s degree does not significantly impact civic knowledge, what impact does college have on civic life? To further explore that question, ISI also asked its 2,508 respondents 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 public issues and 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 allowed ISI to compare the independent influence that earning a college degree, acquiring more civic knowledge, and other factors in a person’s life exert on their views on some of the perennial controversies of our age. That is the focus of this year’s report.
How does graduating from college or gaining civic knowledge change someone’s public views? For a brief summary of the findings, read below. To review the findings in more detail, see Major Findings.
Major Finding 1:
While College Fails to Adequately Transmit Civic Knowledge, It Influences Opinion on Polarizing Social Issues
Earning a bachelor’s degree exerts an independent, statistically significant influence on a person’s views on five of the thirty-nine survey propositions, most involving a narrow range of polarizing social and cultural issues. If two people otherwise share the same background characteristics, as well as equal civic knowledge, the one who graduates from college will be more likely than the one who does not to:
- Favor same same-sex marriage; and
- Favor abortion on demand.
Similarly, a college graduate will be less likely than a non-college graduate 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.
Major Finding 2:
Compared to College, Civic Knowledge Exerts a Broader and More Diverse Influence on the American Mind
Gaining civic knowledge influences a person’s views on four times as many propositions as college—twenty in all—that range across all of the six major survey themes. Civic knowledge also appears to produce a more independent frame of mind. For example, if two people otherwise share the same basic characteristics, the one who scores higher on the civic literacy exam will be more likely to agree that a person’s evaluation of a nation improves with his or her understanding of it; but also less likely to agree that legislators should subsidize a college in proportion to its students learning about America. Similarly, having more civic knowledge makes one more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets; but also less likely to agree that the free market brings about full employment.
Major Finding 3:
Civic Knowledge Increases a Person’s Regard for America’s Ideals and Free Institutions
Gaining civic knowledge—as opposed to merely graduating from college—increases a person’s belief in American ideals and free institutions. If two people otherwise share the same basic characteristics, the one with greater civic knowledge will be more likely to support:
- America’s ideals: He or she will be less likely to agree that America corrupts otherwise good people.
- America’s Founding documents: He or she will be less likely to agree that the Founding documents are obsolete.
- American free enterprise: He or she will be more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets, and less likely to agree that global capitalism produces few winners and many losers.
- The Ten Commandments: He or she will be less likely to agree that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant today.
How College Teaching Alters the Public Beliefs of Professors
Being a college professor alters one’s worldview on propositions involving education, economics, religion, and America. If two people share the same basic characteristics, the one who has taught at the college level is more likely to agree that:
- America corrupts otherwise good people;
- The Ten Commandments are irrelevant today;
- Raising the minimum wage decreases employment;
- Educators should instill more doubt in students and reject certainty; and
- Homeschooling families neglect their community obligations.
And to disagree that:
- Legislators should subsidize a college in proportion to its students learning about America.