New Survey Finds Critical Gaps in College-Aged Students’ Global Literacy

The results of a survey commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Geographic Society highlight significant gaps in what college-aged students understand about the world and what they need to know in order to contend with a world that is more interconnected than ever.

September 9, 2016

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The results of a survey commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Geographic Society highlight significant gaps in what college-aged students understand about the world and what they need to know in order to contend with a world that is more interconnected than ever.

The Global Literacy Survey, conducted in May by ARC Research among 1,203 students aged 18 to 26 and educated at U.S. colleges and universities, reveals that few students possess important knowledge about the world and the United States’ role in it, including which countries are U.S. allies and where U.S. troops are stationed overseas.

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Global Literacy Survey

"College graduates step into a world characterized by enormous cross-border flows of people, services, currency, energy, entertainment, technology, disease, drugs, weapons, ideas, and much more. American citizens are affected in fundamental ways by what happens in the world. These findings suggest that many students simply are not prepared to understand the world they will enter. This will have adverse consequences for their individual prosperity and for the country’s economic competitiveness, national security, and democracy," said CFR President Richard N. Haass.

The results further indicated a lack of geographic knowledge, with only half of students correctly identifying Mandarin Chinese as the language spoken by the most people in the world, and only 57 percent of respondents able to identify Sudan as being on the African continent.

"A deep understanding of the world and our place has been at the core of National Geographic’s work for more than 128 years," said Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society. "We find it imperative that we fill in the gaps in students’ global and geographical knowledge, so that we equip them to succeed in an increasingly global workplace and empower them to work toward balanced, sustainable solutions for the planet."

Despite the lack of overall global literacy displayed, a majority of respondents indicated it is important that they be knowledgeable about geography, world history, foreign cultures, and world events, and nearly three quarters—72 percent—said these topics are becoming more important to them.

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There were also areas, such as the environment, in which the majority of respondents were relatively knowledgeable. For example, respondents knew that

  • fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource (78 percent); and
  • the increase in greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere is considered by scientists to be one of the causes of climate change (84 percent).

Other survey findings include

  • only 28 percent knew that the United States is bound by a treaty to protect Japan if Japan is attacked;
  • just 36 percent identified how many troops the United States has stationed in South Korea (answer: more than 3,000);
  • 34 percent demonstrated they knew that over the past 5 years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States; and
  • 30 percent knew that the legislative branch of the U.S. government has the constitutional authority to declare war.

The Global Literacy Survey also revealed that college students get their information about the world by relying on a variety of resources. For example, respondents say they get their information about the world from

  • Facebook (43 percent);
  • CNN (40 percent);
  • ABC News (33 percent);
  • Huffington Post (26 percent); and
  • comedy news programs (21 percent).

According to Haass and Knell, "While many colleges and universities acknowledge the importance of global issues in their mission statements, and offer majors or certificates in global studies for students interested in international topics, few require that all their graduates, not just those who self-select into international affairs programs, are globally literate. Given the widespread gaps in knowledge identified in this survey, this informal approach cannot be relied upon to provide students with the knowledge they need to navigate successfully as citizens and professionals."

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

National Geographic is a global nonprofit membership organization driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. It funds hundreds of research and conservation projects around the globe each year. With the support of members and donors, National Geographic works to inspire, illuminate and teach through scientific expeditions, award-winning journalism, education initiatives and more. 


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