“The literacy rate among college graduates is lower today than it was 15 or 20 year [sic] ago.”

John Stossel talks to former Tobacco Junk Science Guy Richard Vedder about education:

“Do kids learn anything at Harvard? People at Harvard tell us they do. … They were bright when they entered Harvard, but do … seniors know more than freshman? The literacy rate among college graduates is lower today than it was 15 or 20 year ago. It is kind of hard for people to respond in market fashion when you don’t have full information.”

First, feel free to place the following paragraph from SourceWatch wherever you see the mainstream press quoting Vedder:

Vedder was a member of the Tobacco Institute’s clandestine Economists’ network — a group of academics that the tobacco industry recruited who worked behind the scenes to fight proposed tax increases on cigarettes and the declining acceptability of public and workplace smoking by generating favorable research for publication, presenting favorable papers at academic conferences and symposia, and being ready to challenge the “social costs” economic arguments employed by anti-smoking activist at public and legislative forums. Members of the Institute’s Economists Network also assisted by writing letters-to-the-editor and lecturing to journalists on behalf of the industry.

I suggest the comments box of the Chronicle next time he shows up there. 

I got curious though about the statement about the literacy rate, though, because unlike much of what he says it strikes me as possibly true.

So I looked it up.

The short answer is that it is true, with caveats. Here’s the report he is likely referencing, and here’s the finding on two basic adult literacies (basic stuff, like reading labels or short informational pieces):


Changes between 1992 and 2003

  • Less than or some high school
  • Down 9 points in prose
  • High school graduate
  • Down 6 points in prose
  • College graduate
  • Down 11 points in prose and 14 points in document
  • Graduate studies/degree
  • Down 13 points in prose and 17 points in document

Here’s the caveats:

  • 2003 is the most recent year. So saying we know that college students read worse assume that the trend has continued. It may have, but if this is the data he’s relying on, we certainly don’t  *know* that.
  • The report makes no distinction between those that have been out of college for a while, and those that just graduated. One assumes that the shift came out of recent college graduates, but for all we know it could be the result of an aging population. 
  • There’s the whole 11 points issue — this is 11 points out of a total of 500, so your are looking at a percent correct decrease of about 2%. It’s hard to see that as a news item unless it is a steady trend, and again we don’t know, as these figures are 10 years old.

I would not at all be surprised if college turned out to be failing in this regard. The research behind Academically Adrift is a pretty good indicator that we are failing dramatically in helping students attain very basic competencies. But this is not the stat that proves that. 

On the other hand the rest of that report (if you read it carefully) is not an argument that there is too much education, but that there is not nearly enough.

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