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Civics Survey: How College Is Impacting Americans' Beliefs

Feb 13, 2010

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) just released their fourth major study on the relationship between higher education and civic knowledge. According to the study, higher learning is influencing Americans' views on polarizing social issues, but civic knowledge is exerting an even broader influence on American opinion.

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In 2006 and 2007, ISI quizzed over 14,000 college freshmen and seniors across the nation. The ISI quiz contained 60 multiple choice questions on American history, government, economics and foreign affairs. Many of these questions were similar to the ones that can be found on a citizenship test.

In both years, freshmen did better than seniors on the quiz. However, the average student from both groups was unable to answer more than 60% of the questions correctly. Even students from the most elite American schools received a failing grade.

In 2008, ISI created a similar quiz with 33 questions. This time, they administered the quiz to college students and American adults without college degrees. Nearly three-quarters of Americans failed the ISI's 33-question civics quiz. The average college graduate scored 57%; the overall score was just 49%.

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See how you score on the ISI's 33-question civics quiz.

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Shaping the American Mind

The latest ISI study, The Shaping of the American Mind: The Diverging Influences of the College Degree and Civic Learning on American Beliefs, explores how the college experience is impacting the attitudes and opinions of American graduates.

The ISI asked 2,508 survey participants to share their opinions on a range of public issues and subjects, including higher education, immigration, religion and public policy. The findings of the study follow:

  • College influences opinions on polarizing social issues.
  • Civic knowledge has a broader and more diverse influence on American opinion than college.
  • Civic knowledge increases a person's belief in American ideals and free institutions.

According to the survey, people with college degrees tend to share opinions on polarizing social issues. For example, those who graduate from college are more likely to support gay marriage than those without college experience. College graduates are also more likely to favor the idea of on-demand abortions and less likely to believe that anyone can succeed in the U.S. with hard work and perseverance than those without a college degree.

Proposition High School College Masters PH.D.
Same-sex couples should be legally allowed to marry. 24.6% Agree 39.1% Agree 45.6% Agree 42.8% Agree
Public school teachers should be permitted to lead prayer in school. 56.6% Agree 39.4% Agree 30.3% Agree 17.0% Agree
Abortion should be available at any stage for any reason. 21.0% Agree 20.8% Agree 24.9% Agree 32.6% Agree
Anyone can succeed in the U.S. with hard work and perseverance, a. 75.2% Agree 67.8% Agree 64.2% Agree 50.8% Agree
The Bible is the Word of God. 74.2% Agree 63.5% Agree 52.0% Agree 45.9% Agree

Source: The Shaping of the American Mind: The Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs

But it is civic knowledge that has the most influence. Gaining civic knowledge impacted survey participants' views on four times as many propositions as the college experience.

People who scored well on a civics test were more likely to believe that a person's evaluation of a nation improves with his understanding of it than people who scored poorly. This was true even among people who had similar education backgrounds. Those with high test scores were also more likely to consider the Ten Commandments relevant but less likely to believe that the Bible is the word of God.

Gaining civic knowledge also had a significant impact on belief in American ideals and free institutions. People who gained civic knowledge, as opposed to merely graduating from college, were more likely to believe that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free market and less likely to believe that America's founding documents are obsolete.

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If the most recent ISI study proves anything, it is that we cannot improve or maintain our nation's civic health just by sending Americans to college. Higher education alone does little to influence a person's views of the country or its issues. What Americans need is civic knowledge. This knowledge not only protects the precious political, economic and cultural institutions of our free society, it is necessary in today's society if we want to continue to uphold the beliefs and standards America was founded upon.

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