WASHINGTON, DC—Days before Americans cast their ballots, a new survey released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reveals a troubling lack of knowledge about basic aspects of elections and governance in the United States. The survey casts doubt on whether Americans possess the knowledge of political figures and understanding of political institutions necessary to participate meaningfully in the political process.
Although 97% of college graduates (Bachelor’s degree or higher) agreed it is somewhat or very important to understand the American election process, the survey, structured in a multiple choice format and conducted for ACTA by the polling firm GfK, found that:
- 37% of Americans overall and 22% of college graduates could not correctly identify when Election Day is held.
- About a third of Americans (31%) and 13% of college graduates could not correctly define the Electoral College.
- One in three Americans (33%) were unaware that membership in the Republican or Democratic parties is not a requirement to run for President.
- And, perhaps most disconcerting of all, more than one in four Americans (29%, including 15% of college graduates) could not correctly identify who Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine is.
Recent college graduates, individuals aged 18–34, fared especially poorly when asked questions about the government and the economy when compared to older college grads:
- 23% did not know which time period the Great Depression occurred in (vs. 14% of college graduates 35+).
- 25% could not identify Tim Kaine as a candidate for vice president of the United States (vs. 12%).
- 39% were unaware that the Federal Reserve System is not responsible for collecting taxes (vs. 8%).
- 50% were unable to name Franklin Roosevelt as the last president to win more than two elections to the presidency (vs. 32%).
- 52% did not know that it is the Federal Reserve that decides when the Treasury Department should print additional money (vs. 29%).
- 56% could not name Janet Yellen as the chair of the Federal Reserve System (vs. 26%).
“These results raise serious questions about how well our institutions are preparing citizens to participate in the electoral process, but they are hardly surprising when so few colleges and universities require a course in American history or government,” said Dr. Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Civic ignorance—dangerous as it is—is not unique to the present day. However, institutions of higher education once emphasized civic character and leadership as a core part of instruction. The lackluster results we find among today’s graduates is indeed shocking.”
The pattern of civic illiteracy among college graduates comes at a time when most colleges and universities have very lax graduation requirements and few require civics. ACTA’s What Will They Learn? 2016–17 report found that only 18% of schools require their students to take even a single course in U.S. history or government, and only 3% require a course in economics. To help improve students’ readiness for career and citizenship, ACTA has urged colleges and universities to adopt strong, liberal arts-based core curricula with a focus on essential subjects.
“The Framers were emphatic that an informed citizenry is a crucial precondition for the republic’s survival in the United States,” said Poliakoff. “Colleges and universities should take note: Unless we take greater care in educating students, the deficit in civic literacy will weaken the next generation’s ability to engage in the democratic process and political discourse.”
The survey was conducted by GfK from Oct. 7–9, 2016 among a sample of approximately 1,000 adults nationwide, ages 18+, using the GfK KnowledgePanelTM—a representative, probability-based online panel that covers 97% of the American public. The sample was weighted by age, sex, education, race, household income, metro/non-metro status, and geographic region. The margin of error on weighted data is +/- 3.1% at the 95% confidence level for the full sample and is higher for subgroups. Percentages are rounded to the nearest point; therefore, totals do not always add to 100.