The Literacy of America's College Students

Liam Julian

Justin D. Baer, Andrea L. Cook, and Stephane Baldi
American Institutes for Research
January 2006

The news media pounced on this study about college students' shaky literacy and blamed the universities for those shortcomings (see here, for instance). In so doing, they missed the more important point: literacy problems incubate much earlier than college. Consider the report's disquieting finding that 30 percent of students in 2-year colleges and 20 percent in 4-year colleges have "quantitative literacy" levels at Basic or below. That means such skills as balancing a checkbook, figuring a tip, or calculating interest on a loan. These simple skills should be mastered by fifth grade. Do we expect our universities to offer remedial courses on price comparison and tip calculation (TIP-102: Generosity has a number) for befuddled literature and geography majors? Where academia falls down is in its refusal to set meaningful standards for entry; if every student had to demonstrate his or her ability to read, write, and compute before matriculating, much of this problem would vanish. Here's my advice: skip this report and pick up the National Center for Education Statistics report on adult literacy (reviewed here) instead. Assuming, of course, that you can read it.

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