College Makes Students More Liberal, but Not Smarter About Civics

February 05, 2010

While many graduates of American colleges cannot answer basic civics questions, a higher education does make their opinions more liberal on controversial social issues, according to a new report issued on Friday by an academic think tank.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an independent group with a tradition-minded view of issues, asked about 2,500 randomly selected people more than 100 questions to gauge their civic knowledge, public philosophy, civic behavior, and demographics.

"The Shaping of the American Mind," the fourth report from the institute on civic literacy, will be formally released on Wednesday.

Richard A. Brake, a co-author of the report, said he and his colleagues had sought to see what civic or social lessons students were learning in college.

The institute found that people who had attained at least a bachelor's degree were more likely than Americans whose formal education ended with a high-school diploma to take a liberal stance on certain controversial social issues. For example, 39 percent of people whose highest level of education was a bachelor's degree supported same-sex marriage, compared with 25 percent with a high-school diploma. The trend continued with advanced degrees: About 46 percent of people with master's degrees supported same-sex marriage, as did 43 percent of people with Ph.D.'s.

Previous surveys have found that, in general, college does not bring students up to a high level of civics knowledge. According to the institute's 2008 report, based on a survey of 2,500, people whose highest level of educational attainment was a bachelor's degree correctly answered 57 percent of the questions, on average. That is three percentage points lower than a passing grade, according to the survey's authors.

Even earlier surveys showed that years in college were only slightly correlated to civics expertise. For a 2006 report the institute surveyed 14,000 college freshmen and seniors on basic civics questions. It found seniors answered an average of 53 percent of the questions correctly, just 1.5 percent higher than freshmen. (After the 2006 report was released, some experts questioned the study's methodology and focus on a small range of facts.)

Mr. Brake said results of the studies in the last four years showed that many universities do not place enough emphasis on civics or the basics of American history. He also called for universities to adopt better-balanced curricula.

"College graduates, whether it be current or graduated in the past, seem to have difficulty knowing basic things about our government and our history," Mr. Brake said. "Does college share all the blame? Of course not — this is a systemic problem, from K through 12 and all the way up. But universities train our teachers and train our leaders, so they play a role."

Civics curricula have drawn concern recently from other critics, such as Bob Graham, the former U.S. senator from Florida who is now based at the University of Florida. He suggested, in an interview last summer with The Chronicle, that colleges be measured based on the number of their current students or graduates who participate in community-service or civic organizations.