At Which U.S. Colleges do Students Write at a Middle School Level?

Writing is an essential job skill regardless of industry or profession. In fact, it has arguably become more important than ever before due to digital technologies such as email, social media, and text messages replacing many conversations once primarily held face-to-face.

And though proper spelling and grammar are certainly essential parts of strong writing skills, so is the ability to write effectively and with clarity. But despite the growing importance of written communication, employers are consistently reporting recent college graduates and new hires as lacking in these skills.

We analyzed the readability levels of written documents submitted to us by college-level students across different universities. And we found that more than half of the schools we submitted documents for received sub-par readability scores. We took a look at why writing proficiency is suffering among college students and what it means for the companies they go on to work for.

Our Analysis

Using the Hemingway app, we analyzed hundreds of written documents submitted to the StudySoup marketplace.

Whereas most other online proofreading tools focus on finding spelling and grammar errors, the Hemingway app evaluates the clarity and readability of an author’s writing style, checking for problems such as overly complex phrasing, long sentences, overuse of adverbs, passive voice, and more.

Hemingway provides two “readability” scores for each document. The first is the “grade level” of the content, which is determined using a readability algorithm. According to Hemingway, this score determines “the lowest education needed to understand your prose”.

In our analysis, students’ content received an average score of 12.35, meaning the app determined the content to be written at a 12th-grade level.

As an average, this score suggests that writing skills of college students at these universities are not improving much past the high school level.

Cumulative scores for 55% of the schools we collected writing samples from fell below this average. And several were at much lower-than-expected levels, even as low as the 6th grade.

The schools with the lowest cumulative scores include:

Auburn University — 6.63

Clemson University — 8.67

University of Georgia — 9.00

The second score provided by the Hemingway app is a rating scale based on “good”, “ok”, or “poor”. This score, perhaps even more important than the first, judges how clearly a document has been written by pointing out sentences that are difficult to read.

Out of the 20 schools we collected documents from, 12 had a majority score of “poor” attributed to their documents. The University of South Carolina was the only school who received a score of “good” on more than half of the documents we submitted.

School Name

Score

Good

Ok

Poor

Arizona State University

9%

36%

55%

Auburn University

45%

27%

27%

Clemson University

36%

9%

55%

Colorado State University

27%

9%

64%

Florida State University

18%

45%

36%

George Washington University

0%

18%

82%

Georgia State University

36%

45%

18%

Michigan State University

36%

18%

45%

Mississippi State University

9%

18%

73%

Ohio State University

36%

0%

64%

Purdue University

9%

27%

64%

University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa

18%

27%

55%

University of Florida

45%

18%

36%

University of Georgia

45%

18%

36%

University of Houston

45%

27%

27%

University of Miami

18%

9%

73%

University of Oregon

9%

18%

73%

University of South Carolina

55%

18%

27%

University of Texas at Austin

9%

0%

91%

University of Washington

36%

27%

36%

The effects of poor writing skills on careers

A study done by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that a growing number of recent graduates are unprepared upon graduation and are deficient in skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Written communication was listed among the top skills necessary for job success, with 71.5% of HR managers and other executives listing it as “very important”.

But despite the importance placed on writing skills, employers are finding their new hires to be underdeveloped in them. For instance, 27.8% of employers found that four-year college graduates were “deficient” in their writing abilities. Moreover, 47.3% said that new entrants with two-year college degrees were “deficient” in their writing abilities.

Guy Arthur, owner of the Guy Arthur School of English, has witnessed this deficiency first-hand both in teaching English at the collegiate level and in training professionals to communicate effectively in a business setting.

“It used to be that you’d find a typo or a grammatical error here and there, and you’d ignore it. But now, we get CVs and cover letters so riddled with mistakes, it’s hard to turn a blind eye,” said Arthur.

And this skills gap is costing companies greatly. In a study done by The College Board, American companies have spent as much as $3.1 billion annually training employees to have stronger writing skills.

A study from Grammarly found that it costs employees too. Their study found that employees with stronger writing skills tended to earn more money; and this was across a variety of fields including engineering, finance, marketing, legal, and more.

What’s causing the writing skills gap?

There is strong agreement among professionals on the importance of writing skills as well as an unprecedented amount of available resources to improve those skills. So why is this skills gap continuing to exist?

Arthur points to the type of material people are consuming, and essentially learning from, as one possible reason.

“When we were younger, we read books and magazines. And those had been edited. Now, people are reading Twitter, Facebook, and everyone has blogs, and not all of these have been edited,” said Arthur, “There are so many bad examples, you can’t blame them for their bad editing choices”.

Research has consistently shown that there is a correlation between time spent reading and level of writing skills. And the rules for writing on social media platforms and blogs today are certainly much more relaxed than in the works published exclusively from publishing companies.

Sean Shannon, who has been teaching collegiate level English for more than 10 years, pointed to resources available at the high school level as a possible reason for the deficiency. He noted a huge variance in the skill levels of his students. And much of how well-prepared they are by the time they reach his classroom depends on whether or not they came from a school district that’s been well-funded.

Shannon has found that many of his students who struggle with writing tend to come from school districts that receive a low level of funding. With the funding they do receive, school districts such as these tend to put the money towards preparing their students for standardized testing.

One of the biggest issues Shannon sees with an emphasis on standardized testing is it leaves out a focus for writing proficiency and critical thinking skills. Moreover, he notes that standardized testing teaches students they have one-shot at success. But writing proficiency is a skill that’s improved over time with multiple iterations.

Who’s responsible for improving this?

One of the primary purposes of a college education is to prepare students for their professional careers. So there’s no doubt that colleges should place greater emphasis on helping students to improve their writing abilities. But should the responsibility for closing this skills gap fall solely on universities?

SHRM’s study found that, in order to increase skill levels and prepare students for the workforce, intervention must be taken at all levels.

According to their report, 68% of HR professionals and executives said that four-year universities were responsible for workforce preparation, while 45.2% said two-year colleges were. However, interestingly enough, 75.6% said workforce preparation should start as early on as K-12. And 49.7% of respondents believed that the entrants themselves are responsible for their own preparation.

Arthur noted that he believes students should take on a greater responsibility for their improvement if they want to see true success in their careers.

“There are so many resources available online to help them improve and prepare,” he said, “If it’s so important to their futures, they should take advantage of these resources, even if it means simply starting with a free online grammar test”.

However, Arthur also mentioned there is a disconnect, as many don’t even recognize they are deficient in their abilities or underprepared.

“There is the issue of getting people to admit there is a problem. Most people wouldn’t recognize that they are underdeveloped in their skills”, said Arthur.

Research is consistently showing that, even with a college degree, students are graduating with a deficiency in skills imperative to their success in the workplace, including writing abilities. Even with an endless amount of easily accessible resources available to improve these skills, more attention will need to be paid in recognizing this problem exists in order for it to improve.