The Literacy of America's College Students
From The National Survey of America's College Students
Rapid changes in technology make it necessary for adults of all ages to use written information in new and more complex ways. For example, learning how to operate computers, filling out complicated tax forms, and comparing price labels when shopping for groceries are just a few of the many tasks that are important parts of our lives.
Every adult needs a range of literacy skills to achieve his or her personal goals, pursue a successful career, and play an active role as a citizen. High levels of literacy also enable individuals to keep pace with changing educational expectations and technologies and support the aspirations of their families.
With the recent attention on accountability measures for elementary and secondary schools, accountability in institutions of higher education has been all but overlooked. The National Survey of America's College Students (NSACS) is a study that examines the literacy of U.S. college students, providing information on how prepared these students are to continue to learn and use the skills that they will need in the years to come. Such an examination provides a valuable set of indicators of performance in higher education, informing such issues as the relationship among educational experience, literacy, and preparedness for the job market.
The NSACS, sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts, collected data from a sample of 1,827 graduating students at 80 randomly selected 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities (68 public and 12 private) from across the United States. The NSACS specifically targeted college and university students nearing the end of their degree program, thus providing a broader and more comprehensive picture of students' fundamental literacy abilities than ever before.
The NSACS used the same assessment instrument as the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), a nationally representative survey of the English-language literacy abilities of U.S. adults 16 and older residing in households or prisons. The NAAL was developed and administered by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Literacy levels were categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, or Proficient on the basis of the abilities of participants.
Because literacy is not a single skill used in the same manner for all types of printed and written information, the NSACS measured literacy along three dimensions: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. These three literacy domains were designed to capture an ordered set of information-processing skills and strategies that adults use to accomplish a wide range of literacy tasks and make it possible to profile the various types and levels of literacy among different subgroups in society.
Prose Literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks, that is, to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts. Prose examples include editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials.
Document Literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks, that is, to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts in various formats. Document examples include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels.
Quantitative Literacy: The knowledge and skills required to perform quantitative literacy tasks, that is, to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials. Quantitative examples include balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.
In addition to measuring the literacy skills of college students, the NSACS administered a background questionnaire to address specific issues of interest to the higher education and policy communities, such as demographics, educational and language background, previous educational experience, career plans, and current college experiences.