Study: Most College Students Lack Skills

When I saw the headline, “Study: Most College Students Lack Skills ” on Yahoo!News this morning, I had to chuckle. Like recent news that some professors at UCLA have far-left views, this was not a news flash.

It turns out, though, that the article is not about the inability of students to do basic research and write decent essays.

More than half of students at four-year colleges — and at least 75 percent at two-year colleges — lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks such as understanding credit card offers, a study found. The literacy study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the first to target the skills of graduating students, finds that students fail to lock in key skills — no matter their field of study. The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

Without “proficient” skills, or those needed to perform more complex tasks, students fall behind. They cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. “It is kind of disturbing that a lot of folks are graduating with a degree and they’re not going to be able to do those things,” said Stephane Baldi, the study’s director at the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research organization.

My reaction to this is twofold. First: I don’t believe the results. Second: College isn’t where one goes to acquire these skills.

Based on substantial anecdotal evidence, I think most college graduates in fact have these skills. For that matter, so do most other Americans with triple digit IQs. After all, USA Today, much maligned as “McPaper” for its overreliance on pie charts and other graphics, operates on the presumption that they do.

It turns out that Pew’s press release on the study, from which AP education writer Ben Feller obviously crafted his story since he lifted the Baldi quote from it, provides a radically different picture of the results:

Twenty percent of U.S. college students completing 4-year degrees — and 30 percent of students earning 2-year degrees — have only basic quantitative literacy skills, meaning they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gasoline to get to the next gas station or calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies, according to a new national survey by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

Now, I’m a college graduate, so my math skills may be suspect. Still, I’m pretty sure that 20 percent is not “more than half” and 30 percent is less than 75 percent. What Feller did is pick out the number of students unable to do “complex” tasks but gave examples of “simple” tasks:

New Study of the Literacy of College Students Finds Some are Graduating with Only Basic Skills
Extracted from full report [PDF].
That only 20 percent had not mastered analytical skills at the Proficient level is astounding. Even in graduate school, these skills are not presumed to be perfected. Integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing is hard.

There’s more good news:

  • Students about to graduate from college have higher prose and document literacy than previous graduates with similar levels of education; for quantitative literacy, differences between current and former college graduates are not significant.
  • There are no significant differences in the literacy of students graduating from public and private institutions. Additionally, in assessing literacy levels, there are no differences between part-time and full-time students. No overall relationship exists between literacy and the length of time it takes to earn a degree, or between literacy and an academic major.

This shouldn’t be surprising. As lazy and stupid as adults seem to think today’s youth are in comparison to how it was in “our day,” kids grow up today in a much more complex world. They live much of their lives online and are incredibly more technologically savvy than we were growing up, simply because of their environment.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Sheesh. Who can understand the arguments in the editorials of most newspapers these days?

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    Unless you are a science major of some sort colleges don’t teach enough scepticism. The most valuable tool in making sense of the world today is just that. We must understand the motives of those who communicate with us and understand those interests are usually different than our own. Colleges fail in warning students that it’s tough out there.

    After being required to believe everything they are told by professors students enter a world where very little is to be believed 100%. Sure they can believe some of it but never all of it if they know what is good for them.

    The prose of advertising for products is a clear example of “puffery” beyond what is reasonable for us to believe. Students haven’t learned that hard lesson yet.

    In hindsight analyzing what some of my professors told me would have showed what frauds they were but it wouldn’t have help my grades.

  3. McGehee says:

    College isn’t where one goes to acquire this skills.

    Unless it’s a part of the Cal State system, where remedial math and English have been part of the required curriculum for over 16 years now — I had to submit paperwork to show that I didn’t need remedial English in order to graduate, despite having achieved the highest possible score on the writing-proficiency exam.

    I needed a math course to completev general ed so I took the simplest math course available — having barely managed high-school algebra with a C, I figured I had it coming.

  4. McGehee says:

    The prose of advertising for products is a clear example of “puffery” beyond what is reasonable for us to believe. Students haven’t learned that hard lesson yet.

    Make ’em compare the fine print on their credit card applications against the promises made in the large, bold, multi-colored type, and they’ll figure it out real quick.

  5. floyd says:

    today we equate education with diplomas or years in school, when too often these things are only a measure of how long we delay adulthood.unfortunately the “in house” jobs usually go to the “paper trained” and not the qualified, so we must wade through a system that makes rub goldberg look like an efficiency is possible to come away from university with a good education but at least as likely to come away with only a degree. even our politicians are educated to some “degree”[lol].