By Richard Vedder
I started my morning walk in the humid Washington, D.C. heat by strolling down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. As always, I was awed by a magisterial words of Lincoln carved on the walls, the great expressions like "with malice towards none and charity for all," and, of course, the "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" closing of the Gettysburg Address, the best three minute, 20 second speech ever delivered. Then I remembered -- Lincoln never went to high school, much less college. The levels of literacy and fluency in our language attainable at any given level of education have declined sharply over time, even amongst ordinary folks less gifted than our sixteenth president.
This dumbing down of the people continues to this day. The average level of literacy of adult Americans in the 2003 Adult Literacy Survey of the U.S. Department of Education was exactly the same as in 1992. That may sound not too bad --at least there was no decline. Yet over that 11 years, the average amount of education received by Americans rose. At any given level of educational attainment, literacy declined. Only because Americans in 2003 had more years of schooling on average did we prevent an overall decline in literacy. Moreover, the decline was greatest among college graduates --suggesting the colleges are doing a less good job of helping Americans learn how to read and interpret passages. To economists like me, this implies a loss of productivity -- it takes more inputs (years in school and the resources needed to provide that schooling) to get the same outcome. To be sure, that may not be true for all forms of learning, but literacy in our language is a basic, vital fundamental skill. My wife tells me that Bill Gates was bragging on Oprah the other day about a technologically advanced school where there were no books. Maybe I am old fashioned, but getting rid of books, other things equal, is not a sign of educational progress.
This is all the more reason why the Commission on the Future of Higher Education's likely call for adopting measures of what student actually learn in college is so very important. They are asking that the Adult Literacy Survey be administered more often and that statewide results be provided. Maybe the survey should be universally administered to entering and departing undergraduate students. Did Johnny or Janet become any more literate while attending College X? Did students at College X on average become more literate than students at College Y? Students, their parents, and taxpayers have a right to know if we are getting any learning for the literally hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually on American higher education, and, if so, who is giving the most bang for the buck.