A Closer Look at Higher Education

The United States’ universities are the envy of the world! Attending college will make students smarter, happier, and more successful!

Such fawning statements have become so ubiquitous that few question their veracity.

But a quick review of the facts reveals that American universities often deliver easy, biased, or useless content—at great expense to students, parents and taxpayers. While college still helps many individual students achieve their financial and academic goals, looking at the “big picture” shows that college isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

The Pope Center has compiled the following list of facts that readers may find surprising. (The list, with illustrations, is also available as a PDF here.)

University students learn less than many people think.

• Only 29% of college graduates achieve a score of “proficient” on national literacytests. (National Assessment of Adult Literacy)

• Only 53% of students who begin college have graduated after six years. (The College Board)

• American colleges fail to significantly increase students’ civic knowledge; in a multiple-choice exam on America’s history and institutions, the average freshman scored 50.4% and the average senior scored 54.2%. (The Intercollegiate Studies Institute)

• Today’s students study only 14 hours per week outside of classes, compared to 24 hours in 1961. (Babcock, Philip and Marks, Mindy. “Leisure College USA” Review of Economics and Statistics.)

• Only 15 out of 70 leading colleges and universities require English majors to take a course in Shakespeare’s works. (The American Council of Trustees and Alumni)

Universities are expensive for students, parents, and taxpayers.

• In 2008-09, total federal, state, and institutional aid to students totaled $168 billion. (The College Board)

• On average, full-time faculty members at 4-year and 2-year universities in the United States make $80,368 per year. (American Association of University Professors)

• An average full-time staff member at a 4-year university in the United States makes $75,245 per year. (National Center for Education Statistics)

• Between 1993 and 2007, inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61%. (The Goldwater Institute)

• States spend an average of $4.4 billion each per year on higher education. (U.S. Census Bureau, State and Local Government Finances by Level of Government and by State: 2007-08)

• In 2008, average debt of graduating seniors with student loans was $23,200—up 24 percent from $18,650 in 2004. (The Project on Student Debt)

• The average price of one year of college—including tuition, fees, room, board, supplies, books, and transportation—is nearly $40,000 at private 4-year universities and more than $19,000 for in-state students at public 4-year universities. (The College Board)

A college degree is no guarantee of future success.

• 29% of college grads work in high school-level jobs, including ticket-taker, barista, and flight attendant. (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl. “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018”)

• 20% of individuals making less than $20,000 per year have bachelor’s or master’s degrees. (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2009)

• After factoring in forgone wages and the cost of a college education, the average lifetime earnings advantage for college graduates ranges from $150,000 to $500,000—not the million dollar figure that is often cited. (The American Enterprise Institute)

Many college professors teach one-sided courses.

• In some university departments, the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans is as high as 21.1 to 1. (Klein and Stern. “Professors and Their Politics: The Policy Views of Social Scientists”)

• In a survey at 50 selective colleges, 46% of students said that some professors use the classroom to present their personal political views. (The American Council of Trustees and Alumni)

• Earning a bachelor’s degree significantly changes a person’s opinions on the issues of same-sex marriage, prayer in schools, abortion-on-demand, the “American Dream,” and the Bible. (The Intercollegiate Studies Institute)