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Disturbing data: Literacy skills of many college graduates are not proficient

By Stephen M. Lilienthal
web posted February 6, 2006

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research ("AIR") contains what should be unsettling news. The study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, surveyed the literacy skills of graduates of four-year colleges and two-year community and junior colleges.

The ability of the students to analyze newspaper stories, comprehend documents and balance a checkbook was assessed. Over half the graduates of four-year colleges and three-quarters of the graduates of junior and community colleges could not be categorized as possessing these "proficient" skills.

Stephane Baldi, the AIR Study director, told The Associated Press that he found the results of the AIR study disturbing and that many college graduates have not mastered these skills.

Joni Finney, Vice President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education ("National Center"), said that although college students had skills above the lesser educated population, the scores were not good enough. "But do [the students] do well enough for a highly educated population? For a knowledge-based economy? The answer is no," concluded Finney.

"Institutions of higher education should take a good look at this and ask themselves what they are teaching," Finney asserted to The Associated Press. "This sends a message that we should be monitoring this as a nation, and we don't do it. States have no idea about the knowledge and skills of their college graduates."

The AIR Study follows the release last November of a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities ("AACU") which reported a disparity between what students believed they were learning in college and national studies that measure their writing, mathematical and critical-thinking skills.

An AACU press release issued in conjunction with the report states, "While 77 percent of students report significant improvements in their writing skills in college, standardized tests show that only 11 percent of seniors scored at a ‘proficient' level in writing. Standardized tests results indicate that only 6 percent of seniors graduate at the ‘proficient' level in critical thinking skills, while 87 percent of students believe that college contributed a great deal to improving their skills in this area."

A significant point of the AIR study is that "rapid changes in technology make it necessary for adults of all ages to use written information in new and more complex ways." Higher levels of literacy are needed to enable workers to adjust to increased demands.

Ironically, a decision at the University of Texas – Austin, were it to become a harbinger, should raise concern as to whether colleges are making correct decisions. The Air and AACU Studies indicate there is a need to raise curriculum demands of the curriculum student performance levels. New technology, such as the Internet and search engines, can make a student appear to be expert in many subjects without the student's having exerted much intellectual heavy lifting. That heavy lifting would include in-depth research, concentration on and comprehension of substantive written information, and writing which conveys understanding of its subject. Quite often scholarly and reliable information is published in books.

This year undergraduate students at the University of Texas-Austin entered their library and discovered that it contained no book. University officials had decided to house the undergraduate library's 90,000 volumes at other libraries on campus and to increase Internet service at the undergraduate library and make it more conducive to socializing among students. In fact, the undergraduate library now is referred to as an "academic center."

A report in The Christian Science Monitor states, "While students are still required to read books at the undergraduate level, they are increasingly being asked to use a variety of different online sources." At times the CD-ROMs and DVDs that supplement the published textbooks indeed can improve comprehension of students who struggle with subjects such as mathematics. In the rush to embrace new concepts and technologies on college campuses are traditional knowledge and skills lost?

College literature classes which emphasize the study of books can open new worlds. Such classes certainly did in my case when I was taught by engaging professors at Boston University's College of Basic Studies ("CBS" - now College of General Studies), such as James Wilcox and Robert Wexelblatt, who were committed to teaching and who still continue as faculty members.

We students read books, plays and short stories. Writing was stressed in each professor's classes and there was easy access to faculty. Professors Wilcox and Wexelblatt mixed modern literature with the classics, something that not all students would appreciate. Each professor, nonetheless, was distinguished by his continually urging students to think critically about the works they were reading, to ask themselves hard questions about the themes and characters. Another professor, Delores Burton, taught our class about William Shakespeare's play, Richard III, and required that we write a research paper. Once again, books were employed in the task.

Movies were used in the CBS courses but professors such as Wilcox and Wexelblatt placed primary emphasis upon printed words delivered in bound volumes. I do not know whether the Professors were familiar with Lawrence Clark Powell, the librarian who helped transform the UCLA Library into a leading research library. However, they personified Powell's belief that "books are basic…people are good, and that bringing the two together so that books are more useful and people more fruitful, is one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences on earth."

While technology has its place, permitting facile access to much valuable information, there's no substitute for a strong curriculum and lessons that demand truly critical thinking. Reassigning books, particularly time-honored and insightful works, to the function of secondary resources may become a Google Era trend. Not surprisingly, some students worry about this likely trend.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a study last November conducted by Educause, an association that promotes the "intelligent use" of technology in higher education, revealing that only 27 per cent of college students desire extensive use of technology. Forty-one percent of college students surveyed preferred "moderate" use of technology. Robert B. Kvavik, Associate Vice President of the University of Minnesota, told the Chronicle: "[Students] value the interaction among themselves and with faculty, and they don't want technology to get in the way of that." He added, "The students see technology right now as supplemental rather than transformative."

This is a critical time in the direction of colleges. They wholeheartedly can embrace technology, jettisoning time-honored texts for CD-ROMs and Google, returning emphasis to "Great Books" while lessening the study of comic books and more recent and common literature. Or they can resist radical change, moving slowly and deliberately to use technology to enhance the curriculum but retaining the emphasis on in-depth reading, the kind that promotes truly critical thinking, rather than thinking premised upon cut and paste. Let's hope that colleges return to time-honored and meaningful scholarship, renewing emphasis upon books and challenging courses. Young men and women must seek to elevate their intellectual understanding and academic skills. Google and gimmicks can, and must be secondary.

Stephen M. Lilienthal is a research analyst at the Free Congress Foundation.


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