College Students - at a Loss for Words (on Paper)

Article excerpt

WHEN U. Magazine, a lifestyle and entertainment monthly for the college crowd, asked 550 students at 22 schools nationwide what gifts they'd like this holiday season, answers ranged from the predictable - CD players and VCRs - to the fanciful: "a car that never breaks down" and "a diploma with a job offer attached." Under the heading "academic tools," students listed three top wishes: a computer, a printer, and software. Books, which might have been a choice for earlier generations of students, failed to appear anywhere.

This high-tech, nonliterary wish list probably comes as no surprise to researchers at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., who last week released the latest gloomy report on literacy levels among college graduates. According to their study, half of all college graduates can't understand a bus timetable or use a brochure to calculate the annual amount a couple would receive for Supplemental Security Income. Only 35 percent can write a letter explaining a billing problem.

Although the report finds that literacy levels have risen among students who go on for advanced degrees, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, characterizes the literacy levels of those with four-year degrees as ranging from "a lot less than impressive to mediocre to near alarming."

Another literacy study last month reflects equal pessimism about reading and writing abilities. The American Federation of Teachers-Chrysler Report on Kids, Parents, and Reading found that 85 percent of students' writing skills were poor or less than adequate. In an age of voice mail, modems, and telephoned thank-yous to Grandma, no one, it seems, spends much time putting pen to paper.

After the Princeton study was released I asked a recent college graduate if he could write a letter about a mistake on a credit card. Of course he could. But he seemed puzzled by the question. "Why would you bother to write?" he asked. "Calling their 800 number is much more efficient. …