This chapter reviews the empirical evidence suggesting that graduates of American colleges and universities, including the state universities of Michigan, show poor basic skills and lack specific knowledge. This evidence tells us that something is wrong in the existing curriculum. The poor intellectual achievement of graduates is not their fault. The fault lies in the curriculum and with those who design and execute it. That thought will lead us to chapter 2 and the discussion of why students show such poor reading, writing and thinking skills.

Two recent publications in particular indicate the growing perception that college graduates are ill-prepared for today’s job market. The first, by Michigan State University Professor L. Patrick Scheetz, is Recruiting Trends 1994-95: A Study of Businesses, Industries, and Governmental Agencies Employing New College Graduates.[11] Recruiting Trends describes not only the success with which graduates from American universities get jobs, but employers’ satisfaction with them.[12] Among the employers responding to Recruiting Trends, 261 come from the north-central region of the country, which includes Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Nebraska. Many Michigan businesses appear in the Employer Index of the publication: Dow Corning Corporation, Empire-Detroit Steel, First Federal of Michigan, General Motors, Michigan Consolidated Gas, Michigan National Bank, and others. The information tabulated by Recruiting Trends may therefore be considered relevant to the state universities of Michigan.

Employers surveyed by Scheetz indicate that the ability to think critically, speak effectively, and negotiate skillfully is highly valued in a potential employee;[13] it is at the same time an ability which they find ever more rarely. Scheetz documents the “mismatch” between the training college students receive and the skills and abilities today’s employers require.[14] Those who hire new graduates indicate not only that the supply of new engineers and other technically trained graduates is inadequate, but that not enough graduates enter the job market with the ability to write, speak, reason, and relate to others in a satisfactory manner. In other words, these graduates have not acquired the skills traditionally associated with a “liberal arts education” centered around a meaningful “core curriculum.”

Furthermore, “new graduates expect to get too much money; they don’t want to spend time in an apprenticeship [and] they are unwilling to start at the bottom of an organization. . . . An attitude of superiority was noted too.”[15] “Additionally,” writes Scheetz, “employers believe college graduates are receiving degrees in academic majors with low market value. Endorsed was a preferred background in common sense subjects such as mathematics, reading, composition, speech, etc. More appropriate training would be prudent,” employers said.[16] While a low 20.3 percent of respondents rated new college graduates as “adequately prepared” for the current job-market, “no organizations strongly agreed that new college graduates were adequately prepared for the realities of the world of work.”[17] Recruiting Trends describes college graduates who “believe [that] they are the most talented, enthusiastic, and energetic individuals ever graduated.”[18] This description is consistent with a 1988 U. S. Department of Education survey which found that American students consistently rated themselves as well-educated in all subjects, while consistently scoring lower on assessment exams than their foreign counterparts.[19]

The second publication is Learning by Degrees: Indicators of Performance in Higher Education.[20] The authors, Paul E. Barton and Archie LaPointe, examine the literacy of American college students and others. Although Learning by Degrees is nationwide in scope, Michigan results are included and its portrait of college students and recent graduates is troubling.

Barton and LaPointe describe the “levels of literateness” of contemporary American college students as ranging from “a lot less than impressive to mediocre to near alarming, depending on who is making the judgment.”[21] They assert that “relatively few [four-year college graduates] reach the highest level” of literateness, or what they call “Level 5.” But an astonishing 47 percent of four-year college graduates “do not reach Levels 4 and 5;” they function, that is, at what most Americans older than forty would regard as a seventh-grade level of reading and writing.[22] Barton and LaPointe’s finding in this regard should be linked with Scheetz’s comment, in Recruiting Trends, that employers find new holders of four-year degrees to have “poor communications skills”[23] and “expectations . . . too high for available positions.”[24]

Barton and LaPointe describe a typical “Level 4” task as “using a bus schedule to determine the appropriate bus to take for a given set of conditions.”[25] The tasks at “Level 5” are hardly challenging; they consist in making inferences based on indirect or partial evidence, or rejecting a superficially plausible explanation on the basis of internal contradictions or missing information.[26] Only 8 percent of four-year graduates reach the competence of “Level 5.”[27] No wonder the employers surveyed by Scheetz, in Recruiting Trends, cited a lack of “analytical skills”[28] as being among the primary problems faced by new, degree-holding employees.

Both of these reports show that our institutions of higher education could do a much better job of instilling basic knowledge and skills. Too little attention is devoted to academic basics and intellectual rigor, and scarcely any attention to ethical development or character building, even though all of these were once important goals of traditional higher education. Indeed, the NAS study of The Dissolution of General Education finds both an “evaporation of content” and a “decline of rigor” in American undergraduate education nationwide.[29] Courses abound which, in name, seem to address the matter of basics. But time and time again, when talking to traditionally oriented teachers in the state universities of Michigan, one will hear the complaint that students read, write and think at an unacceptably low level.

As I have noted elsewhere on the subject of literacy in America’s colleges and universities, with particular reference to my experience as a teacher in the Michigan system, even students at the graduate level make numerous basic language errors and demonstrate an underdeveloped vocabulary.[30] At the undergraduate level, the norm is so low that one cannot take for granted that students will know how to write—and thus know how to read and accurately interpret—a sentence with multiple subordinate clauses. As a consequence, to quote Scheetz, “new college graduates are not adequately prepared for the everyday work world.”[31]