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

America’s colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America’s history and institutions. There is a trivial difference between college seniors and their freshmen counterparts regarding knowledge of America’s heritage. Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen, and at many schools, seniors know less than freshmen about America’s history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. Overall, college seniors failed the civic literacy exam, with an average score of 53.2 percent, or F, on a traditional grading scale.

Student Knowledge

Undergraduates know little about America’s history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. Table 1 illustrates college seniors’ low level of knowledge after three years of undergraduate education. They scored on average a disappointing 53.2 percent overall.

Average Senior Percentage Correct on a Basic American Civic Literacy Exam
Test SectionSeniors Grade
Overall53.2% F
American History58.5% F
Government 51.4% F
America and the World 51.5% F
Market Economy 50.5% F
Table One

The average senior at every college scored below 70 percent correct. This would be a D or F on a basic test using a conventional grading scale. Even at colleges with the highest scoring seniors, no class of seniors scored higher than 69 percent, or D+. Seniors at 22 of the 50 schools scored on average below 50 percent, and seniors at four of the colleges had an average score below 40 percent.

Responses from college seniors to a selection of individual questions display how little they actually know about basic historical facts, ideas, and concepts germane to meaningful participation in American civic life.

  • Seniors lack basic knowledge of America’s history. More than half, 53.4 percent, could not identify the correct century when the first American colony was established at Jamestown. And 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg the correct answer).
  • College seniors are also ignorant of America’s founding documents. Fewer than half, 47.9 percent, recognized that the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” is from the Declaration of Independence. And an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly identify the source of the idea of “a wall of separation” between church and state.
  • More than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United States.
  • Nearly half of all college seniors, 49.4 percent, did not know that The Federalist Papers—foundational texts of America’s constitutional order—were written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Seniors actually scored lower than freshmen on this question by 5.7 percentage points, illustrating negative learning while at college.
  • More than 75 percent of college seniors could not identify that the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2 percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s political support. In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his most reliable supporters in the Communist Party. Almost 5.7 percent chose Israel.

Furthermore, we included in our survey six questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is designed to test high school seniors’ knowledge of America’s history and institutions. Overall, college students scored even more poorly on these six questions than they did on the remaining 54, which were created specifically for this survey.

Higher Education’s Failure to Increase Knowledge

Average senior knowledge of America’s history and institutions is alarmingly low because universities fail to increase undergraduate civic learning in any meaningful sense. By comparing scores of seniors with those of freshmen within each institution, the estimated value of a college or university education regarding learning about America through courses in history, political science, and economics may be determined. Overall among the 50 colleges and universities tested, student knowledge increased a discouraging 1.5 percent. Freshmen, on average, begin their undergraduate years with very little civic knowledge, scoring a low 51.7 percent, and they end knowing little more, scoring 53.2 percent as seniors.

Table 2 illustrates how little overall civic knowledge is added by colleges and universities in the four areas examined.

Average Knowledge and Learning on a Basic American Civic Literacy Exam
Test SectionFreshmenSeniors Learning
Overall51.7% 53.2%+1.5%
American History58.3% 58.5%+0.2%
Government50.5% 51.4%+0.9%
America and the World 49.8% 51.5%+1.7%
Market Economy 46.8% 50.5%+3.7%
Table Two

So, even though students arrive on campus with inadequate knowledge of America’s history and institutions and in great need of improved civic literacy, institutions of higher education in America do little to facilitate this learning. On average, three years of higher learning adds a dismal 0.2 percent to students’ already limited knowledge of American history and a meager 0.9 percent in government and political thought. Colleges and universities fared little better in teaching about “America and the World,” adding 1.7 percent in average student learning.

The greatest increase in knowledge between seniors and freshmen was in the “Market Economy” section, a 3.7 percent increase. Nevertheless, seniors answered incorrectly almost half of the questions in this section, 49.5 percent. In summary, though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000 and the average under-graduate leaves campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring knowledge about key areas of America’s constitutional and economic systems.

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