• August 29, 2015

College Makes Students More Liberal, but Not Smarter About Civics

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.


1. 11332462 - February 05, 2010 at 03:50 pm

Aargh!! I know this short item doesn't include much methodological information, but it appears that this study makes a common (but indefensible) error of claiming longitudinal change from a cross-sectional survey. There are other explanations -- some more plausible, such as the fact that students who go to college start out more liberal than those who do not -- for the differences in liberalism among college graduates and non-graduates than the oft-repeated claim that colleges push students to the left. Even self-reported change, if done in a cross-sectional survey, is rather suspect. The only really sound basis for such claims is a careful, cohort-based study done at two points in time that, to the extent possible, holds constant other potential causal variables. This is not to suggest that college is not liberalizing; perhaps it is, but studies such as the one described cannot, in truth, demonstrate such impact.

2. rogerbowen - February 05, 2010 at 03:51 pm

The Chronicle's reporting of "The American Freshman" (29 January 2010) shows that 64.9% of first year students agree strongly or somewhat with the opinion that "same sex couples should have the right to legal marital status." ISS claims 39% of those having completed a Bachelor's degree support same-sex marriage. Could it be that fours years of college is actually responsible for greater conservatism on this issue?
Roger Bowen

3. crunchycon - February 05, 2010 at 04:13 pm

Is no one in the least concerned about the lack of knowledge of civics in college grads? Many college students cannot even name the three branches of our government! The liberalism concerns me, but when more than 90% of the professors/instructors are liberals, impressionable minds are affected, of course. Please don't cite to me the studies that say conservatives aren't interested in being educators; the researchers obviously haven't tried to find out why conservatives feel discouraged from pursuing careers in higher ed.

4. cofserials - February 05, 2010 at 04:24 pm


5. mmccllln - February 05, 2010 at 04:35 pm

Outside of the survey results about whether students are more liberal or not with more education, I'm not sure why anyone is surprised that civics knowledge is low. History and its tentacles (government, political science, etc.) are de-emphasized subject areas beginning in middle school. Why? It is not part of most states' standardized tests and there is essentially none on the ACT or SAT. In this data-driven world of education, history is unfortunately following the path of physical education. Why would anyone expect history and civics scores to be anything but low in this survey?

6. zefelius - February 05, 2010 at 05:36 pm

Not a surprise concerning basic knowledge skills. In my experience ignorance is widespread across disciplines, not merely in civics. When I give very simple "informal fallacy" exams and quizzes to my students, at a highly ranked university, a very high proportion of them fail, or earn D's and C's. Strawman and bandwagon fallacies should be incredibily simple for college students. As far as I can tell, though, there are no consequences for ignorance. As a full-time lecturer who wants to keep his job, I have little choice but to inflate grades. Until there is more prevalent job security, I don't have much faith that our university faculty will have the power to give students accurate grades. Hence, ignorance is likely to continue.

7. 22249521 - February 05, 2010 at 09:35 pm

I agree with many of the critiques already made of the study cited here--especially that bad education starts in kindergarten in the US, especially regarding civics--but my question is why this article is even in the Chronicle. The study was done by a right-wing think tank that is not identified as such, instead being misrepresented by the meaningless adjectives "academic" and "independent" and hiding its deep conservatism behind the phrase "tradition-minded." Is the Chronicle trying to pander to right-wingers, or just attract readers through catchy, sensationalistic headlines of articles that hide the ideological bias of the studies they cite? Either way, the Chronicle of Higher Education does a disservice to itself and to the project of higher education by supporting the propaganda of the right by trying to link liberalism to lack of civics knowledge. Isn't it striking that the article mentions a comparison between college-educated and non-college-educated Americans with regard to issues like same-sex marriage, but not with regard to civics knowledge? And just glancing at the findings of the study, it seems that the ISI considers college and civics knowledge to be separate and actually opposing influences on "the American mind." So maybe their ultimate argument is that college should be eliminated and be replaced by civics alone. Now it all makes sense: conservatives not only want to destroy all public education, but all higher education as well. Long live ignorance!

8. lgregory - February 05, 2010 at 09:38 pm

What does this mean exactly?

"an independent group with a tradition-minded view of issues"

The effects of college on attitudes is under-studied by credible researchers.

9. melba_frilkins - February 06, 2010 at 02:09 am


10. zefelius - February 06, 2010 at 03:16 am

Agreed: It is rather silly, and perhaps disingenuous, to intimate a causal connection between liberal views and various levels of civics knowledge. But I don't see the problem with including conservatives in the debate on higher education. As Mill would say, if they are right then we must refine our position, and if they are wrong then we are still provided with an opportunity to test ourselves by refuting invalid arguments. The Chronicle's article need not be construed as a disservice to higher education, then, but in fact quite the opposite: learning is precisely facilitated through such give and take.

11. ksherrill - February 06, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Did you reprint a press release? The ICI is considerably more conservative than "tradition-minded"!

12. oneal_721 - February 06, 2010 at 02:55 pm

I think there isn't more of a conservative presence on campus because they're busy writing hack press releases and whining on internet comment boards. Zing!

13. coop_tamu_04 - February 06, 2010 at 04:52 pm

I agree with the debate that the study definitely has its own threats to validity. However, I have noticed during my own period of being matriculated at various institutions of higher education, that the majority of my own professors have been quite liberal in their leanings. I have also noticed that in those many class settings and interactions, I was served rather well not to debate them or to challenge their beliefs, however, they seem to be dignified and applauded when they challenge mine. Again, the study seems less than scholarly, but that has been my own experience.

14. coop_tamu_04 - February 06, 2010 at 04:56 pm

oh, and I very much agree that there is a large segment of baccalaureate students exiting institutions of higher education that are unable to effectively describe how their own government operates, or basic principles of economics.

15. texcap - February 08, 2010 at 11:00 am

I think whether the professors at your school are more liberal or conservative depends on the institution (large/small; public/private; religious/secular), the location (East-West coast/South/Midwest) and the discipline (liberal arts/business/engineering/sciences).

I know the department that I am in (business) in a medium sized public institution in the South is almost exclusively Republican-Conservative.

16. crunchycon - February 08, 2010 at 12:33 pm

texcap -- that seems to be where the 4% conservatives, on average, are in universities, if there are any at all -- in the business college, at least in my experience in large, midwestern public universities.

17. jaysanderson - February 08, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I don't know about the study's methodology, but the results are generally reflected in the students with whom I have contact. They seem to be ready to protest something-just about anything, but cannot take the time to learn how their government works.

It isn't enough to be angry about an issue. Anyone can be angry. One must learn how our system of governance works and participate.

18. tgroleau - February 08, 2010 at 01:29 pm

These results are no surprise. Students will adopt stances on issues that "feel good". If they have a left-leaning faculty, they'll adopt left-leaning stances. If they have a right-leaning faculty, they'll adopt right-leaning stances. Since most (but not all) academics lean left, our graduates are likely to lean that way too.

However, getting civics questions correct requires more than feeling good, students have to actually KNOW something. Feeling is easy, learning is hard. Regardless of which way the faculty leans, most students prefer feeling to learning.

It would be interesting to test students' knowledge of the arguments on both sides on the issues instead of their stance on the issues. I suspect that they'd do no better than they do on the civics questions.

19. j_martens - February 08, 2010 at 03:10 pm

The article raises the question: Is our college students learning?

I looked at online teacher evaluations for insights. See

20. forstudentpower - February 08, 2010 at 03:41 pm

Another worthless and hopelessly biased piece of "research" from the right-wing ISI, that, because it's very fancy, uses big words, and is set in an impressive serif font, Chronicle reporters lap up.

There's a good takedown of the report here: http://bit.ly/a7OIjB

21. marka - February 08, 2010 at 03:41 pm

Hmm ... I actually skimmed the linked ISI article, and I think the headline here is misleading. That has led to unjustified criticism of the underlying article. It may have its own problems, but from what I gathered, it was directed more at the overall poor state of civics knowledge, not whether college 'made' students liberal.

I have considered myself 'liberal' in my ways, but I have to say my college & law school experiences suggest that extreme self-professed 'liberal' professors were usually the worst, close-minded, biased & prejudiced. Give me a moderate or 'conservative' professor who isn't so self-righteous and who actually encourages critical discussions that encompass a broad variety of views, over a 'liberal' who denigrates any divergent views.

22. new_theologian - February 08, 2010 at 04:43 pm

Yet again, we find academics denying that there is a liberal bias in academia, while describing liberal-minded academics with the pronoun "we"--in contrast to "them" (conservative-minded, non-academics), and dismissing the implications of a thesis without even entertaining it. Even #10, who seems to me pretty level-headed, plays the "us v. them" game: ". . . and if they are wrong then we are still provided with an opportunity to test ourselves by refuting invalid arguments."

Yes, methodologically sound studies are necessary before conclusions as to cause can be drawn, but isn't it reasonable to conduct preliminary surveys to determine whether such a study might be warranted in the first place? Or is the question too threatening?

23. zefelius - February 08, 2010 at 06:50 pm

New Theologian:

Point well taken! Indeed, I thought perhaps my writing style would be misleading, but I followed through with it anyway. As a rhetorical style, I sometimes use the "we" simply as a way to be less combative. I've learned this as a conversational tool in many relationships ("we should work on this" or "we seem to have a problem" as opposed to "you should work on this")! Well, I guess this time you showed how such a style also has its drawbacks: it ended up creating an "us vs. them" game which was actually contrary to my purposes. In fact, I'm more of a moderate (or hybrid) than either a liberal or conservative, so it was also misleading.

Good comment on your part...

24. angusjohnston - February 09, 2010 at 10:23 am

The ISI survey required participants to answer questions about Sputnik and the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas -- worthy subjects of, perhaps, but not "civics" in the sense that the term is ordinarily used.

Also, it attempts to demonstrate that college makes students liberal by contrasting the attitudes of college attendees with those of non-attendees, a comparison that may tell us something about broad demographic trends, but reveals nothing about the effects of college attendance itself.

The report is tendentious malarkey from start to finish, and it mystifies me that the Chronicle is granting it any legitimacy at all.

25. doug1943 - February 09, 2010 at 10:59 am

The people who sponsored this research, the ISI, are indeed a conservative organization, and this should have been mentioned. (It's a rather tame, traditionalist, even a bit fuddy-duddy type of conservatism, however, almost more European than American. Don't think Ann Coulter.)

And of course the conclusions drawn reflect the political interests of the sponsors.

And the conclusions are rather too sweeping. In any case, what "makes" college students more liberal than their non-college equivalents, something which has been known for decades, is probably explained by a many other things than what they are taught.

But what everyone ought to be able to agree on is that college students, who ought to be the best educated among their generation, do not know much about how their government works -- or rather, is supposed to work.

Here's a hypothesis about why this is the case: if most of the people who set curriculum and teach the relevant courses believe, more or less, that the official story of elections, legislatures, the judiciary, executives, Constitutions, etc is actually a smokescreen for the domination of society by a ruthless and amoral class of corporate exploiters, and that the history of America has been just a history of genocide and strike-breaking and the frame-ups of innocents like Sacco and the Rosenbergs and Mumia .... in other words, if Chomsky and Zinn are where much of the professoriate get their ideas from ... then of course their students won't know much about "civics".

If you wanted to study the old Soviet Union, how much time would you spend studying its Constitution of 1936, if you wanted to know how things really worked?

I suppose this hypothesis could be tested by researching the civics knowledge of graduates of "liberal" vs "conservative" colleges, assuming we could hold everything else equal.

Now I'll undermine my own argument by guessing that college students who have come through "conservative" colleges are as ignorant of civics as their "liberal" college counterparts.

26. rubicon01 - February 09, 2010 at 08:45 pm

I am less concerned about same sex marriage than I am about the serious lack of knowledge & understanding of the American constitution. When one looks upon that document as an impediment to imposition of a social justice agenda, one needs to try to realize the founders did not fight to create a nation promising equal outcome, only equal opportunity. We may not have done that well, but, compared to any other nation on the planet, we have accomplished far more than anyone can name.
Historic revisionism & presentation of views from only one political viewpoint, causes students to develop a one sided opinion of history. Yet facts & the realities on the ground always trump such perspectives. ie: Truman is not a war criminal because he authorized dropping the bombs. His decision was based on the potential losses of life allies AND the Japanese public would have suffered if a 'beach landing' style invasion was required. The Japanese militarists refused to surrender even after one bomb was dropped, so NO warning would have convinced them otherwise. Only after the Emperor decided to surrender did reality set in & even then, militarists wanted to fight on & planned to either kidnap or kill the Emperor so they could have their way. Japan went to war because those militarists pushed them into it. The point being, there are many liberals who think Truman committed a war crime. I know thousands of young men at the time who were grateful Truman made his choices. In fact, even though the deaths were horrific & we pray it never happens again, there were many Japanese who also realized the only way to stop the war was for Japan to surrender & the only way they would surrender was to realize there was no option otherwise.
Its a long post to say, history is being taught in a revised format that fails to recognize events & realities at the time. Hindsight is always 20-20. Americans have many failures in their history. However, they are incredibly overshadowed by the enormous number of successes America has brought to the world & herself. Teaching revised history only creates fools who eventually go through great emotional turmoil until they realize their education was tainted by ideology & not by reality or truth.

27. obfpir - February 11, 2010 at 09:37 am

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is about as "independent" as the Discovery Institute.

Here's text from the splash page of their website:

"Every study shows that the university is dominated by liberal professors. It is no wonder this country is currently on a slippery slope to socialism."

Here's a partial list of what's available on their "books" page:

Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism
Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America
Republican Leader: A Political Biography of Senator Mitch McConnell
Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity

I think "independent group" in this article means "not actually directly funded by the Republican party." But I wouldn't trust their "studies" any farther than I could spit them.

What's up, Chronicle?

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