Study Finds College Students Remarkably Incompetent

By Stef Morisi -

Balancing a checkbook, comprehending newspaper articles, and calculating the cost of gas are just a few tasks that many college seniors cannot handle, according to the American Institutes for Research. The study analyzed the competency level of 1,827 individuals attending 2- and 4-year colleges. Researchers administered the National Assessment of Adult Literacy to collect the data, which revealed that over 75% of 2-year college students and 50% of 4-year college students are incapable of completing everyday tasks.

These tasks range from straightforward to complex, and fall into three categories: reading comprehension, critical thinking and analysis, and practical mathematics. Most participants easily carried out simple activities such as utilizing a map or consulting a nutrition label. The latter category –which includes calculating restaurant tips, utility bills, order totals, and supply costs – yielded more surprising results. About 20% of students in 4-year schools demonstrated only basic mathematical ability, while a steeper 30% of community college students could not progress past elementary arithmetic.

Several behavioral and social science experts express deep concern for this rising adult generation. Though many study subjects have already graduated with a degree or intend to do so, Joni Finney, Vice President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, says that “states have no idea about the knowledge and skills of their college graduates.” Study director Stephane Baldi takes a similar stance. “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 these things,” he explains.

A positive correlation was found, however, among course rigor and study results, notably in research tasks such as finding specific information in textual resources. Students who took part in interactive, communications-based classes showed a greater understanding of debates and op-ed pieces. When compared to adults at the same education level, these students displayed exceptional skill at applying theoretical concepts to real-world situations.

But they remain outside of the main body of students considered in the study, even in the post-college climate. NBC News reported that Fortune 500 companies shell out $3 billion annually to train employees in “basic English.” Sending workers to “remedial business writing classes” was common practice at Valor, a former telecommunications company that merged in 2006.

Finney and Baldi view the recent study as a profound glimpse into the weaknesses of higher education. Both hope that data will inspire government and university officials to raise graduation requirements and make intellectual rigor the new standard.

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