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

September 13, 2016—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.

“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.”


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