Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Best" colleges, least learning?

In a previous post, I considered the idea that watching Fox News reduces knowledge. I will now be fair and balanced by considering the possibility that attending an elite university reduces knowledge. In 2005 the Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducted a survey of “civic literacy” among freshman and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. The questions were mostly about American history and institutions: a complete list can be found at the ISI site. Seniors got an average of 54% correct, which the ISI presented as a “failing grade.” Of course, having 60% as the minimum passing grade is just an arbitrary convention, so whether 54% is actually a good, bad, or mediocre score is a matter for individual judgment. But they also found an interesting pattern: gains from freshman to senior year were usually smaller at more prestigious universities. 

Here are the averages for the Ivy League and four groups of universities based on the US News rankings: the top 50 national universities, the next 50 national universities, the top 51 liberal arts colleges, and all others. (All Ivy League universities are in the top 50 of the US News rankings—Rhodes College is ranked 51 among liberal arts college).
                     N Freshman Seniors  Gain
Ivy League           6   64.0    63.9   -0.1
Top 50 universities 15   58.8    60.5    1.7
51-100 universities  6   49.1    52.3    3.2
Top 51 colleges      4   57.1    62.8    5.7
Others              25   42.9    48.2    5.3

The gains in the top 100 universities were smaller than the "others," and in the Ivy League, seniors scored slightly worse than freshmen:  in the ISI's interpretation, the Ivies (plus Duke and Berkeley) “reduced civic knowledge.”  The problem with that interpretation is that there are two things at work: learning and forgetting. Students at more selective institutions start out knowing more, so they have more to forget. I estimated a regression predicting senior from freshman year scores:
For example, freshman at the University of Southern Maine had an average score of 37.5, which gives a predicted senior score of 43.6, for an expected gain of 6.1. Freshmen at Brown had an average score of 63.4, which gives a predicted senior score of 65, an expected gain of only 1.6. The top and bottom performers relative to expectations:

Concordia College    +4.4
Harvard University   +4.4
Rhodes College       +4.2
Smith College        +4.0
Murray State         +3.6

St. Thomas College   -4.7
Rutgers              -4.7
Cornell              -6.8
Oakwood College      -7.0
St. John's           -7.2

The scores are influenced by sampling error (the report says that 14,000 students were surveyed, which averages out to 140 per class at each institution), but probably there are some real differences in the rate of learning (or forgetting) at different colleges.

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