A Report of the National Civic Literacy Board: The Coming Crisis in Citizenship
The Survey

Prestige doesn’t pay off. An Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student’s civic learning. Indeed, there is no relationship between the cost of attending college and the mastery of America’s history, politics, and economy. Moreover, of the 50 schools surveyed, including Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, 16 showed negative learning—in other words, at 16 schools seniors scored lower than freshmen, suggesting that they will graduate with even less civic knowledge than what little they had as freshmen.

Prestige Doesn’t Pay Off

An Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student’s overall knowledge of America’s history and institutions. America’s most prestigious schools, including Yale, Georgetown, and Brown, improved their students’ civic knowledge far less than schools such as Rhodes, Calvin, and Grove City. Seniors at Rhodes College, for example, scored 11.6 percent higher than freshmen, while at Brown seniors actually scored lower than freshmen by 2.7 percent. Table 3 illustrates this by comparing the actual civic learning at these six schools.

Knowledge of America’s History and Institutions at Selected Elite and Non-Elite Colleges
SchoolLearning RankLearning
Non-Elite Schools:
Rhodes College1 11.6%
Calvin College3 9.5%
Grove City College 4 9.4%
Elite Schools:
Georgetown University 43 -1.2%
Yale University 44 -1.5%
Brown University 47 -2.7%
Table Three

This phenomenon of elite schools’ underperformance is also illustrated at the level of individual questions. For example, when asked to pick the concluding battle of the American Revolution, Yorktown, seniors at Rhodes on average improved 12 percent over their freshman peers. At Grove City, seniors improved by an average of 8 percent. At Yale, however, seniors scored lower on average than freshmen by 9 percent, and at Georgetown they scored lower by 7 percent. In other words, learning at a non-elite school, Rhodes, exceeds that at Yale by a 21-point margin. Furthermore, when students were asked about what the Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits, Rhodes exceeded Georgetown by a 38-point margin in terms of value added.

Another way to characterize the relationship between civic learning and prestige is to compare a school’s value-added score with its rank in the U.S. News & World Report 2006 ranking. This comparison shows the following:

  • Colleges that rank high in the U.S. News and World Report 2006 ranking were ranked low in the ISI ranking, which is based upon valid scientific evidence of learning. Specifically, a 1 percent increase in civic learning as measured in our survey corresponded to a decrease of 25 positions in the U.S. News ranking.
  • U.S. News ranks Rhodes College 45th, yet Rhodes is highest in civic learning among our sample of 50 schools. Yale, on the other hand, ranks in the bottom quintile in our civic learning rankings but is third overall in the U.S. News ranking.
  • Dartmouth is ranked sixth overall by U.S. News but places in the next-to-last quintile in our civic learning rankings.

Furthermore, 39 percent of seniors in our survey attended an institution included among the Barron’s elite group of “most selective” 70 schools. After controlling for numerous variables, these seniors showed 2.6 percent less civic learning than seniors who did not attend an elite Barron’s school. In other words, our analysis shows that institutional prestige and selectivity are strongly related to lower civic learning. Our “best” colleges and universities are the worst offenders when it comes to a failure to teach America’s history and institutions. And one can infer that rankings such as those produced by U.S. News and Barron’s reinforce this troubling trend.

Negative Learning

Of the 50 schools surveyed, 16 schools showed negative learning, including Brown, Georgetown, and Yale. In other words, at 16 schools seniors scored lower than freshmen. At these schools, seniors apparently either forgot what is known by their freshman peers or—more ominously—were mistaught by their professors. Table 4 lists the 16 schools that showed negative learning and the difference in average percent correct between seniors and freshmen at these institutions.

16 Schools That Show Negative Civic Learning
School Civic Learning Rank Negative Learning
University of Michigan 35 -0.1
Ithaca College 36 -0.2
University of Chicago 37 -0.3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 38 -0.4
Williams College 39 -0.7
University of Florida 40 -0.8
Wofford College 41 -0.9
University of Virginia 42 -1.1
Georgetown University 43 -1.2
Yale University 44 -1.5
State University of West Georgia 45 -2.0
Duke University 46 -2.3
Brown University 47 -2.7
Cornell University 48 -3.3
University of California, Berkeley 49 -5.6
Johns Hopkins University 50 -7.3
Table Four

America’s most prestigious and selective colleges enroll the best prepared freshmen but do little to increase knowledge, while the colleges ranked highest in adding value by increasing knowledge, such as Rhodes, Grove City, and Calvin, enroll less knowledgeable freshmen but add significantly to their knowledge and understanding. As a result, seniors at the top-ranked colleges in our study, such as Rhodes, Calvin, and Grove City, graduate knowing nearly as much or more than seniors at Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, who entered college as more knowledgeable freshmen. Students at some non-elite schools actually surpass in civic knowledge students at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Berkeley by their senior year.

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