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More Money, Less Knowledge

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.”

Thomas Toch, co-director of the non-profit think tank Education Sector, agrees. In the July issue of The Atlantic he writes, “We need to shed more light on how well colleges are educating their students -- to help prospective students make better decisions and to exert pressure on the whole system to provide better value for money.”

That doesn’t mean we need more federal spending on education. In fact, we ought to have less. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has already agreed to throw money at colleges.

In July the maximum amount for Pell Grants will jump to $5,350, up $500 per year. Obama’s 2010 budget declares it wants to “ensure the Pell Grant continues to grow steadily by making it an entitlement.” And the administration plans to provide $200 billion in scholarships and credits over the next decade.

But the more aid government provides, the higher colleges raise their tuitions. As a recent White House staff report on higher education notes, “schools with the steepest increases in tuition receive the most loan assistance from the federal government, clearly incentivizing higher tuition.”

Instead, parents and elected officials should use their financial leverage to break the downward spiral in higher education. They should demand that colleges teach basic American history, political science and economics. Schools should be graded so those that don’t -- or won’t -- teach these subjects can be punished by losing customers (students).

That’s a lesson in free-market economics that colleges need to learn -- one that can help more Americans understand part of what we celebrate on the Fourth of July.

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