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Study shows US College students have inadequate knowledge of American history and institutions

Students at some of the nation’s top universities have a woefully inadequate knowledge of  US history and institutions, according to report released today by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).  The report was based on the ISI’s yearly survey of 14000 freshmen and seniors at 50 US colleges and universities.  Participants in the survey were administered a 60 question exam testing their knowledge of history, government, international relations, and the market economy.

The reports major finding was that US college students “know astoundingly little about American history, political thought, market economy and international relations.”  The overall average score for the 7000 college seniors who took the exam was an 54.2% – equivalent to an “F.”  Even students at the nation’s top rated universities fared poorly on the exam.  Seniors at Harvard, who scored highest on the exam, had an overall average score of 69.6%, equivalent to a failing grade of “D+.”  Students at other top institutions – such as Yale, Princeton, and – scored even lower, and for 18 institutions included in the survey, the average score was less than 50%.

The report stated that “inadequate college curricula” were largely to blame for the poor performance uncovered by the study.   The “quality and the number of courses” relating to American history and institutions was cited as a key factor.  Students at colleges where the requirement for the number of civic courses was lower performed more poorly than students at colleges with more stringent requirements for civics learning. 

Some of the reports major findings:

Student Civics Learning “Stalled” by US Colleges           

The report concluded that the rate of student learning about US history and institutions in colleges was significantly lower than the rate of learning in primary and secondary schools.  In fact, the report found instances of “negative learning” at a number of institutions, where seniors showed worse performance on the test than freshmen at the same institution. 

Top ranked universities performed worst

According to the report, “when it comes to teaching about America’s history and institutions, the nation’s most competitive, expensive, and highly rated colleges do not perform as well as less competitive, less expensive, and lower-rated colleges.”  At four colleges ranked among the top 12 by US News and World Report, seniors scored lower than freshmen on the test.  Princeton, ranked first by US News, was found to be “the fifth worst school for civic learning.”  Another Ivy League institution – Cornell University, ranked 12 by US News – was ranked the “worst performer” for student learning; Cornell seniors scored on average five points lower than Cornell freshmen. 

Greater knowledge of America correlated with higher likeliness to vote


Seniors who increased their knowledge of American history and institutions during their college years were found to be more likely to vote than those who did not, according to the study.  “Greater knowledge about American goes hand in hand with more active citizenship.”


Minority students “under-served by US Colleges”

According to the study, college seniors who self-identified as belonging to a minority (Black, Hispanic, or Multi-racial) answered less than half the questions on the exam correctly, and gained less than one point in their overall civic knowledge during college.  Students who self-identified as White, on the other hand, answer more than half the questions correctly, and gained 5.1 points overall during their college years.  According to the report, an implication of this discrepancy was that “by failing to advance civic learning among these [minority] students,” US colleges and universities “are also failing to equip them to help keep the door of liberty open for future generations.”

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