The Appalling Decline of Literacy Among College Graduates

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Mr. O'Neill is the author of A Bubble in Time: America During the Interwar Years, 1989-2001 (Ivan R. Dee, 2009).

Everyone who cares about higher education in this country knows about the chronic under funding of public universities, which has been going on for at least 25 years but has now reached crisis levels owing to the current recession. Many are also worried by the high failure and drop out rates that result in only half of all students who matriculate actually earning their bachelor degrees. But for obvious reasons almost no attention has been paid to the appalling decline of literacy among college graduates. In December 2005 the U.S. Department of Education released its second National Assessment of Adult Literacy report. The first survey had been taken in 1992 using a sample that accurately represented the entire adult population age 25 and up. The NAAL grouped respondents into four categories, below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient according to their reading abilities. These were tested in three categories of literacy labeled prose, document, and quantitative. Prose literacy denotes the ability to search, comprehend, and use information in continuous texts. Document literacy means the ability to do these same things employing noncontinuous texts in various formats. Quantitative literacy involves having the knowledge and skills to work with numbers and figures, a figure that changed very little between 1992 and 2003 when the second assessment was made.

The other two categories showed a precipitous decline in literacy among college graduates aged 25 and older. In 1992 40 percent of all graduates were found to be proficient in prose and 37 percent demonstrated proficiency in document literacy. In 2003 the percentages were 31 percent and 25 percent respectively. Over a period of eleven years the proficiency of all approximately 37 million college graduates had declined sharply, in prose by nearly a quarter and in document literacy by almost a third. (The performance of high school graduates declined as well, from 5 to 4 percent in prose and 6 to 5 percent in document proficiency.) Apart from the oldest graduates having died the addition of ten, or at most eleven, graduating classes to the pool of college graduates, meant that the members of these classes had to have scored very badly indeed to drag down the averages of the entire population by so much. Further, the graduates tested in 1992 were themselves not particularly literate for the declining performance of college students probably dates from somewhere around 1980. Had there been an NAAL in 1970, at a guess, a solid majority of graduates would have been proficient in both prose and document literacy.

This devastating report has gone almost unnoticed in academia, and in the country at large. The New York Times ran a short story on p. 34 of its December 16, 2005 issue summarizing the report, but otherwise it has received very little attention. In one sense this is surprising, for surely the steep decline in literacy has to bear some relationship to the under funding problem. As state support for public universities, who produce the great majority of college graduates, has declined so has the size of the permanent faculty in relation to student enrollments. About half of all undergraduate courses are taught by part time instructors, usually known as adjuncts, who receive pitiful salaries, no benefits and no job security. As the wretched serfs of academic life they have little incentive to teach well and every reason to inflate grades, as most students will forgive a teacher anything so long as they receive at least a B—except for those who seldom show up and never study, who will accept a C, although such low grades are rare. In addition to buying off trouble for doing such a poor job, the entire teaching force, from adjuncts to tenured professors, is tempted to win glowing student evaluations by bribing their classes. Widely derided when first introduced several decades ago, student evaluations have become a standard component of faculty promotions. Everyone knows these evaluations are worse than useless because they penalize demanding teachers and reward the easy graders, but administrators love evaluations which sustain the illusion that the happier students become the more they learn, which as the NAAL shows, is manifestly untrue.  

At first glance one might suppose that universities would have publicized the 2005 NAAL report for the collapse of reading proficiency among college graduates has to be at least partially a consequence of many years of under funding. But facing the facts would require some painful admissions. Perhaps chief among them is that in a losing effort to make up for the loss of state financial support public universities have made great efforts to increase their student enrollments and raise tuition and fees, which have gone up at a far greater rate than the Consumer Price Index. Forty years ago tuition and fees at public universities were nominal, a few hundred dollars a semester, which even in 1969 most families could afford. Today at many public universities instate tuition and fees run upwards of ten thousand dollars a year. When room and board are added the total cost for a year as an undergraduate can easily come to $25,000, about half what a good private university charges but still a great deal of money—almost exactly fifty percent of the median household income in 2007.

Accordingly, publicizing the NAAL results would force universities to admit that they are charging students and their families more and more to learn less and less, an ugly truth that seems to be in everyone’s interest to ignore. Not surprisingly students seem content with a system that fails to prepare them for life in the work force but offers them four or five years of enjoyable irresponsibility. Murray Sperber, whose Beer and Circus (2000) is must reading on this subject, calls this arrangement the faculty/student nonaggression pact, according to which instructors pretend to teach and students pretend to learn. Everyone gets good grades or evaluations and presumably goes home happy. Further, since new buildings are paid for with bond issues and do not come out of the regular budgets many universities have spanking new dorms and student facilities, which mask the reality of deferred maintenance, lessened security, and other expedients. Wage slavery is disguised also, since students can rarely tell the difference between adjuncts and tenured faculty members.

So we have the modern public university on the undergraduate level, where grade inflation is rampant, student skills diminish with every passing year, what passes as teaching is conducted by exploited adjuncts and faculty members who no longer care about standards—for students, that is, the drive for ever-more qualified professors continues unabated. It is a central irony of our situation that while mediocrity among undergraduates is tolerated and even encouraged, the professoriat demands excellence of its members, and of graduate students too as they are potential members. It appears that the only people responding to this crisis are employers, who increasingly require college graduates applying for jobs to take writing tests, on site so they can’t cheat—a sad measure of our failure to teach either skills or ethics. 

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/30/2009

Right on all counts, Mr. Besch.

Larry Cebula - 10/29/2009

This oped is takes a logical leap into a flight of pure fancy. I do not trust the author. Does anyone have a link to the study he is citing?

Hillary Hutchinson - 10/28/2009

Literally just returned to the office from an education summit in Charleston, SC and it certainly is true that employers are increasingly concerned about the pipeline from school to work, and many are working to provide more internships, or sponsor in-school career academy learning (similar but different from the old off-campus vocational training.

James W Loewen - 10/27/2009

Hochstadt is on target: the part about student evaluations is extraneous and wrong. Having studied student evaluations, at least in sociology, at the U. of VT, I can report that many difficult courses got high marks from most students, while some easy but boring courses got low marks. And this was at the school listed #4 party school in the US by PLAYBOY!

Peter Saracino - 10/27/2009

Whenever I read folks discussing "their" problem it reminds me of how narrow-minded the intelligentsia has become. Everything in this article (and the comments on it) could have been written about the UK, Australia, or Canada.

Rather than have another superficial conversation about globalisation, it would be more helpful to examine why the decline in literacy is so widespread. Certainly, funding for public education is one aspect, but the media and the Web get to share in the blame too. Personally, what I find most scary is the large number of young people who don't care about being literate in the traditional sense. If they can read and write well enough to get a job and to "text" their friends then that is good enough. The term "intellectual poverty" has no meaning for them whatsoever so they do not see themselves as impoverished.

Randll Reese Besch - 10/27/2009

A-literacy is what Steven F. Sage was looking for to identify a rampant problem. That and lack of interest in much of anything that doesn't satisfy the primal needs of food, sex, place to work, place to live and sport (the other sex) for fun.

A-literacy is the ability to not learn beyond a certain point and either be static or actually decline in your learning and ability.But then the USA has been known for a long time as a seat of anti-intellectual sainthood.

As the economy declines the need for a higher education declines even as the cost to get it reaches into the ionosphere. Not a good mix to produce the best and the brightest to lead the world into a better way of living. However it would be good for a dark empire to lead the world into ruin & subjugation.

Are you smarter (as knowledgeable) as a 5th grader?

John Connally - 10/27/2009

What Hochstadt meant to say: O'Neill's cynicism on this issue, and his resulting categorical insult to entire populations of college faculty and students... remind me of Hitler's Germany.

Nathan G. Benedict - 10/26/2009

Although we can blame this decline on our education system, let's also look at the state of the American home today - little discipline and the easy way out, just for starters.

Steven F. Sage - 10/26/2009

My para 6 line 9 should read,
<<discuss the merits of competing volumes >>

Steven F. Sage - 10/26/2009

William O’Neill’s piece substantiates a reality known to professors as a taboo non-topic, I suspect, for serious discussion on many an American campus. The reality is the virtual collapse of public secondary education in much of the United States. It’s a taboo because to acknowledge that reality is to admit that the level of learning at average colleges and universities has declined to the junior high or even elementary school levels of some four decades ago. And the corollary to that acknowledgement is to admit that “professors” in most places actually function as remedial instructors, at least in undergrad History classes.

High schools graduate 18 year olds who can read, i.e., they’re not technically illiterate. By and large, though, they don’t read much of anything and O’Neill has documented the results. Those results accord fully with my own experience; i.e., the “anecdotal evidence” much maligned by (so-called) social scientists. So, to recount that evidence:

During my own first semester (Fall 1990) teaching Western Civilization at Middle Tennessee State University, it became evident that the enrollees in my classes had no grounding to speak of, whatsoever, in basic geography, history, or current events. Indeed, to call these people “students” was a misnomer; hence, “enrollees”. So starting in Spring 1991, and continuing for the next few years, on Day 1 of each class I would assess the enrollees’ level of knowledge via a quiz on the most basic Geography and Civics. I administered such quizzes to three sections each semester for the next four years. The enrollees were instructed not to write their names at the top of the quiz; its purpose was not individual grading but rather to let me and the enrollees themselves gauge how much they did or did not know.

On a blank outline map of the world, I’d ask them to locate the continents and some principal countries. The results: About 40 percent of the enrollees couldn’t find Europe. Those that could label that sub-continent correctly would then usually fail to identify France or Germany. They did spot Italy, since they’d heard somehow about the boot-like shape, and many did label the U.K. as “England”, having learned one way or another that it was situated on an island. But very few enrollees could locate Mexico, or Africa, the Amazon River or the Nile, let alone Iraq – already the venue of an American war. More often than not they wrote “Japan” over New Zealand. They had also heard that Japan is an island nation. (The crew of the “Enola Gay” was better schooled; at least the navigator...)

The Civics results were commensurate. Through four years, not one enrollee could name the then-incumbent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. All the Pre-Law majors flunked that one. Only two or three enrollees were able to come up with a ballpark estimate of the size of the U.S. population, i.e., within 50 million by Census Bureau estimates. (Take me out to the ball game, or out of it...) In four years, only one kid could identify the function of the U.S. State Department. Why go on? You get the picture. Either all the outright idiots had been assigned to my classes at Registration, or there was a knowledge deficit across the board.

Things would never improve since each semester it became evident that the enrollees simply did not read their textbooks. Not at all. No amount of assigning, coaxing, cajoling, pleading, or threats ever worked. You could go to the campus bookstore and leaf through those books piled up and bearing that yellow USED sticker on the spine. No highlighting past the first chapter, no marginalia, no penciled underlining, no asterisks, no cookie crumbs, no coffee stains, no boogers. In short: no readers. Even so, at meetings of the departmental Textbook Committee we would take care, and many hours, to discuss the merits of competing enrollees sent by the publishers. As if the enrollees were students, as if they did any reading. Yup, as Murray Sperber concludes, faculty and enrollees were engaged in a mutual charade. Like Party bosses and workers in Warsaw Pact countries, circa 1988.

Perhaps my experience is too local and skewed; Middle Tennessee State University did exhibit certain features placing it in the Twilight Zone even among members of the Hee-Haw Regional Conference. E.g., my department chair, a Nazi fan, had posted his motto on the History Department office door. In fraktur script, beneath a spread-winged eagle with swastika in its talons was the inscription “Treu und fest hinter dem Fuehrer”. He was the department “Fuehrer”, get it? Incidentally, this institution at Murfreesboro TN is historically KKK, not historically African-American or any other historically hyphenated minority. The Gumps in my classes often bore given names (surprise!) like Forrest and Lee and Jackson. Occasionally I’d get an enrollee who did merit being called a student, but then there’d be something alien about the kid; i.e., a foreigner from India, New Jersey, Albania or someplace like that. But by and large, as for enrollees’ knowledge levels, I’m confident that my observations are indicative of wider trends.

Is there a solution? Don’t ask me. I’m an Historian; I don’t do The Future.

Steve Hochstadt - 10/26/2009

Mr. O'Neill touches many subjects here, and I agree with many of his arguments, but he too often substitutes ranting for analysis. One example: he says "Everyone knows these [student course] evaluations are worse than useless because they penalize demanding teachers and reward the easy graders". In fact, many serious educators derive a great deal of value from students' responses to surveys about the courses they take. Students do not simply reward easy graders and college faculty do not simply direct their teaching to get higher ratings. O'Neill's cynicism on this issue, and his resulting categorical insult to entire populations of college faculty and students are neither necessary to his argument, supported by the evidence, nor demonstrative of any direct knowledge.