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October 5, 2006

survey of college students' civic literacy

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released a survey showing that college students don't know much about American history, constitutional principles, and economics; and they hardly gain knowledge over their four years in university. The biggest gains are supposedly found at the least prestigious institutions. At fancy schools like Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, knowledge actually falls between freshman and senior year.

I was all set to praise and quote the report, because it draws attention to topics--civics and history--that I fear we overlook. The failure of prestigious schools to add value would confirm my suspicion that higher education is largely about conferring status--not educating students.

However, I have serious questions about the methodology of the report, which simply surveyed groups of freshmen and seniors and compared the differences. There is no mention of dropout rates. It is very likely that the less prestigious schools, where students apparently showed a lot of improvement, also have high dropout rates. Their seniors score higher than their freshmen because those who make it to senior year are the academically successful survivors of a winnowing-out process.

For example, the report praises Colorado State University for adding 11 points to its students' knowledge scores. But Colorado State has a 6-year retention rate of only 63%, meaning that four in ten of its students leave without getting a degree. CSU seniors were probably better students back in their freshman year than many of their peers who left without graduating.

The report draws a related inference about the quality of teaching. Each course that a student takes on a topic like American history correlates positively with knowledge scores--more so at Grove City College than at Georgetown. The report infers "better course content and teaching at schools such as Rhodes, Calvin, and Grove City College." But again, students who complete a course in American history at unselective colleges tend to be successful compared to their average classmates, many of whom do not complete many credits at all. At Brown or Georgetown, students who take history are no smarter or better informed than their peers, who may take anthropology or microeconomics instead.

There are other problems in the report. For example, there's an obvious "ceiling effect" at schools like Yale, whose freshmen outscore the seniors at any institution in the study. It is hard to add value when your incoming students score high, especially since they may reasonably go on to study other subjects than history, economics, and government.

Finally, the report asserts that "students from intact families -- those who report having two parents married and living together -- demonstrated greater civic learning than did students whose parents are separated or divorced or where at least one parent is deceased." The impact after statistical controls are applied turns out to be one percentage point--maybe statistically significant, but awfully small.

October 5, 2006 1:05 PM | category: none


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