Ed Feulner

This year, the economy promises to make Independence Day less explosive than usual.

“In yet the latest reminder of the economic crisis,” The Washington Post reported recently, “more than 40 communities across the country have already cancelled their Fourth of July fireworks.” Families are cutting back too, of course. The savings rate has risen to its highest level in 15 years and consumer spending is down as people focus on making ends meet.

At least one industry, though, is bucking the cost-saving trend: higher education.

In recent decades, the cost of college has increased roughly 8 percent every year -- about twice the general rate of inflation. For the just-completed academic year, tuition jumped 6.4 percent. The College Board, which tracks such information, expects a similar increase next year.

During this patriotic holiday, parents and students alike should start asking whether they’re getting their money’s worth from colleges. Because, when it comes to understanding basic concepts about American history, evidence indicates they aren’t.

Consider a series of surveys by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. In 2006 and 2007, ISI gave 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges a test to determine their knowledge of American heritage. In both years, freshmen and seniors alike failed, earning scores in the low 50s.

Last year ISI extended its effort, surveying a random sample of 2,500 adults. Those results, too, were sobering. Americans with a bachelor’s degree averaged only 57 percent, just 13 percentage points higher than the average score among high-school graduates and a failing score in its own right.

What haven’t American colleges taught well?

“Only 24 percent of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States,” ISI found, to cite one example. And: “Only 54 percent can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system.”

Today’s college graduate is “highly unlikely” to “have a solid command of the founding and Civil War eras, core constitutional principles, and market economics,” the report concludes. “After all the time, effort and money spent on college, students emerge no better off in understanding the fundamental features of American self-government.”

Ed Feulner

Dr. Edwin Feulner is Founder of The Heritage Foundation, a Townhall.com Gold Partner, and co-author of Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today .
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