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The Appalling Decline of Literacy Among College Graduates

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.