No, there aren’t “shocking numbers of illiterate grads”

The real story is how much more university graduates can do

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A startling headline in The Huffington Post caught my eye today: Shocking Number of University Grads are Functionally Illiterate. Even correcting for the tendency of internet headline writers to jazz things up to get more hits, this seemed concerning. And sure enough, as I read on, I was told that a full 27 per cent of Canadian university graduates “don’t have the basic literary skills to function in society.”

The article was relating statistics found in a new report based on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an initiative that seeks to measure how well people are prepared to engage with a modern, information-rich society.

And it is true that many Canadians with university degrees score less than Level 3 in the PIAAC measurement. But below 3 is not functionally illiterate. In fact, “functionally illiterate” is not a term that even appears in the report. Indeed, the report cautions against drawing too many conclusions from these measures because concepts such as literacy “are too complex and varied to be captured in a single measure.”

In any case, contrary to the implication of the Huff Post article, Level 3 itself is a fairly high standard of literacy—not the base level needed to “function in society.” According to the report, a person with Level 3 literacy is able to work with “dense or lengthy texts” that require the reader “to construct meaning across larger chunks of text or perform multi-step operations in order to identify and formulate responses.” So Level 3 is not about finding the dice button on your blender. Even Level 2 texts require readers to, among other things, “compare and contrast or reason about information from various parts of a document.”

So it’s no surprise then that Canada’s scores are right in line with other western countries, a little behind some (Japan and Finland, for instance), on par with others (Korea and the U.K.), and ahead of some, too (Germany and the U.S.).

The real literacy story in this report is not how little university graduates can do with texts, but rather how much more they can do than non-university graduates. University educators have long maintained that university education fosters higher order skills like advanced literacy and this report bears that out.

According to the study, only two per cent of adults with less than high school education were in the top tier (Level Five) in the literacy scores. By contrast,  29 per cent of those with university degrees were at that level. Perhaps even more enlightening, only 12 per cent of those with non-university post-secondary education were at that same high level. At the other end of the scale, 32 per cent of those lacking high school were at Level One or lower (yes, some were so low they were literally off the chart). That number drops to 18 per cent for high school grads, 13 percent for non-university post-secondary grads, and just 6 per cent for those with a university degree.

In short, university graduates are more likely to have advanced literary skills. Much more likely.

Still, one might quite rightly ask why even six per cent of university graduates have minimal literacy. But here again, there is nothing shocking about this number. The study covered people up to the age of 65, and some older university graduates may well have lost some of the skills they acquired in years past. Indeed, the age breakdown in the study suggests literacy and numeracy levels decline among older groups, although less so for university graduates.

Moreover, anyone who has spent much time in a university knows that there are ways to game the system. One can seek out the least challenging programs, find the easiest courses, search for the most accommodating professors; one can always try to bully a weary instructor into changing that 45 to a 50; and then, of course, one can always simply cheat.

Nevertheless, the research shows that the vast majority of Canadian university graduates have somewhere between a solid and an elite level of literacy. Most importantly, it shows that those graduates have, on average, a much higher capacity for dealing with information than those without university education.

Now that is something we should be clicking on.