Enrichment Education

Most college students unaware of social progress made in US and worldwide

“The findings suggest many students are not being equipped with what we might call a progress-mindset,” said the co-author of a new report.
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Story at a glance


  • The report found that based on what they have learned in school, 45 percent of U.S. college students believe the world is better off than it was 50 years ago among measures such as literacy, life expectancy and poverty.

  • Among conservative students polled, 50 percent said they believe that people are better off than five decades before. 

  • Forty-five percent of liberal and liberal leaning students said the same.

Fewer than half of American college students are aware of social progress made in the U.S. and across the world in terms of literacy, poverty and life expectancy, according to a new report.  

“American colleges and universities play a vital role in educating future political, cultural and business leaders. The goal of our survey is to understand how well we are equipping our future leaders with the knowledge, openness, optimism and agency to aid in continuing society’s progress,” said John Bitzan, Menard Family Director at the Challey Institute at North Dakota State University and co-author of the report. 

The university’s American College Student Freedom, Progress and Flourishing Survey found that based on what they have learned in school, 45 percent of U.S. college students believe the world is better off than it was 50 years ago among measures such as literacy, life expectancy and poverty. 

In the past 50 years, extreme poverty has decreased, hunger levels have been falling, life expectancy has gone up by more than 10 years and global literacy has increased. However, these numbers took a hit in the pandemic. 

While data from the World Health Organization shows life expectancy worldwide increasing by six years between 2000 and 2019 to 73.4 years, the pandemic took a toll on this progress. The life expectancy in the U.S. fell by a year and a half in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The pandemic has also affected global poverty rates, which are determined by the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day. Figures from the World Bank Group suggest that between 75 million and 95 million more people will be living in poverty in 2022 due to COVID-19’s lingering effects. Prior to the pandemic the global poverty rate declined for 25 years. 


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There is a political difference in views of social progress. Among conservative students polled, 50 percent said they believe that people are better off than five decades before. This is compared with 45 percent of liberal and liberal leaning students who said the same. 

“The findings suggest many students are not being equipped with what we might call a progress-mindset. I have collected a lot of data showing young Americans are not optimistic about the future, but it still surprises me that so many young people, particularly students with access to a college education, do not feel hopeful and inspired,” said the study’s co-author Clay Routledge. 

Yet only around a quarter of college students collectively feel optimistic about the future of the world and about half are optimistic about their own futures, the survey shows. 

The University’s Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, in collaboration with College Pulse, measured the responses of 2,000 undergraduate students at 130 colleges across all 50 states. 

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