Pay More, Learn Less

Posted: Oct 13, 2006 9:49 PM

Many parents believe that where their children attend college is the most important decision a family will make.

So where would you rather send your child: Rhodes College in Memphis, or Johns Hopkins in Baltimore? Colorado State, or Cal-Berkeley? Before you answer, you may want to read a new report titled “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship” from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (Full disclosure: I serve on ISI’s board of trustees.)

The report, conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy, is the first to ask whether our institutions of higher education are preparing students for lives as educated and involved citizens of a republic. Researchers asked some 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors multiple-choice questions about America’s history, government, foreign relations and economy.

The report paints a bleak picture. It found that many of our best-known colleges are failing their students. On average, seniors scored just 1.5 percent better than freshmen did. And had the survey been graded as a test, seniors would have failed; they averaged 53.2 percent.

Even worse, “at many schools, seniors know less than freshman about America’s history, government, foreign affairs and economy,” the study found. Many students are actually regressing while on campus.

Plus, in higher education you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. “Students at relatively inexpensive colleges often learn more, on average, than their counterparts at expensive colleges,” the report says.

ISI found that Rhodes College does the best job teaching about American citizenship. Seniors there answered 11.6 percent more questions correctly than freshmen did. Colorado State was number two, with a 10.9 percent gain. Meanwhile, students at many supposedly top-flight schools seem to lose knowledge while on campus. At Berkeley (49th on the list) seniors scored 5.6 percent worse than freshmen, and at Johns Hopkins (dead last) they were 7.3 percent worse.

Unfortunately, those last two weren’t the only leading schools that failed their students. “Our analysis shows that institutional prestige and selectivity are strongly related to lower civic learning,” the study says. In fact, “colleges that rank high in the U.S. News and World Report 2006 ranking were ranked low in the ISI ranking.”

Overall, of 50 schools surveyed, students regressed at 16 of them. Seniors there “apparently either forgot what is known by their freshman peers or -- more ominously -- were mistaught by their professors.”

All of this matters because the study also found that young adults who understand American history and institutions are more likely to vote, volunteer for community service and join political campaigns. Thus, if we want the young people of today to become the leaders of tomorrow, we’ll need to change our approach to civic education.

ISI’s report suggests some simple ways to do that. Universities, it recommends, should increase the number of history, political science and economics classes students must take. Not surprisingly, students don’t learn what they’re not taught, and at too many schools students slide through without really studying our history and politics.

At the same time, students, parents and alumni need to be more involved. If those who pay the bills demand more and better classes, schools will provide them.

Finally, universities should create departments dedicated to teaching our history and institutions. For years the buzzword on campus has been “multiculturalism.” Schools have emphasized, among other things, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies and African-American studies. With universities failing to teach old-fashioned “American studies,” though, it’s time to insist they build academic centers to do so.

Those who don’t know history, it’s said, are doomed to repeat it. We need to make sure today’s young adults learn about America’s great history, so they can not only avoid its mistakes, but more importantly, continue and emulate its successes -- and make the history to come even better than our past.