Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Murray part 2: Is College for Everyone?

Today, Charles Murray continues his discussion of intelligence and education in the Wall Street Journal with an op-ed on college enrollment. The returns on a college education have increased, many employers demand a bachelor's degree as a credential that shows perseverence and capability and, consequently, many more high school graduates are enrolling. In the early 1970's, only about 10% of Americans over age 25 had a college degree. Now, at least 40% of people in their late teens attempt some college. We have not had a corresponding increase in overall intelligence in the population, which means that two things are happening. Drop-out rates are high, and college instruction has been dumbed down (or at least many colleges are having to focus on remedial education for high percentages of their students). That in turn creates degree inflation where employers start looking for master's degrees to signal intelligence, and so forth.

Murray believes that, on the basis of IQ, at most 15-25% of the population is capable of college level work, as most people think of it. So he calls for other options for young people to signal that they are skilled workers that don't involve a four year liberal arts education. He calls for an expansion of two year and vocational schools. Clearly he is not riding the New York City subways, as every ad on the wall is already for such schools that teach office technologies, opthalmic dispensing, welding, and the like. I think Murray is more conveying that people in his social class assume everyone who is going to make something of themselves should go to a four-year college. That pressures a lot of young people who want to make decent wages to go to four year programs (and then spend longer than four years, or drop out before finishing) when they'd be better served by other options. So Murray calls for dropping the snob factor. Over time, he believes, the market will do this. After all, a lot of plumbers make more and have nicer houses than the white collar workers whose pipes they work on.

Are any Gifted Exchange readers reading this series? I'm curious what you think about Murray's take on college. Is the idea of making college near-universal foolhardy? Is it better to make "some education after high school" the goal? There are policy debates going on right now in Congress about subsidizing the interest on student loans as a way to increase access to higher education. But do we suffer from a lack of access?


The Princess Mom said...

Laura, I've not read the WSJ pieces but there is a similar article on Education Week called "The College Juggernaut." It reads in part: "The problems with college are well-known: tuition increases outstripping inflation, tuition aid declining, appalling graduation rates, rising postcollege debt, and uneven instructional quality. These problems convince us that the “getting ready for college” juggernaut is more than a few degrees off course, with well-meaning people at the helm who are not thinking deeply enough about what long-term success looks like and how all youths might have opportunities to achieve it."


Anonymous said...

We should focus more on specialization rather than liberal education even for a bachelor’s degree. Except for the highest level of giftedness, intellectually gifted individuals often have some area (s) of relative weakness which in many cases may even constitute a learning disability (although usually not formally identified). As a result, some high achieving and well rounded college graduates are really just high average across the board, but not necessarily exceptional even in their area of focus. Others eventually drop out or don’t pursue an advanced degree because they can’t perform well enough in a subject which is unrelated to their area of considerable aptitude.

I also believe that we should over-haul the K-12 system before we decide that who should and shouldn’t attend college. A gifted child from a disadvantaged area may have lower achievement scores than a bright child for another school. The reason is that they haven’t had access to the same level of instruction. If all teachers had more specialized degrees such as a math teacher who holds a degree in math, our children would have better opportunity to attain their highest level of proficiency. Then we can begin to sort out who belongs in college and who doesn’t.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Here's a discussion going on at another website about the topic and Murray's op-eds. Warning! This particular site is a conservative discussion forum, so don't click through unless you're prepared for that:

Anonymous said...

I am a transplant from Europe, and the first thing I noticed after moving to US many, many years ago was this notion that "everyone can attend college". I totally agree with Murray - not all of us have the brains for it. Which is perfectly OK! Look at the universities that are less than prominent - they all have remedial classes in math! Unheard of when I was at the University (Europe) - if I needed help, I had to hire a private tutor.

Noshua Watson said...

Hi Laura,

Considering the number of children of alumni who are admitted to universities, it's rather amusing to hear people talk about college attendance as a matter of merit, rather than social class. College gives access to social capital, not just an education and higher future earnings.

The major barriers to college attendance/completion are poor academic preparation, lack of financial resources and lack of family/friends who have gone to college. Unfortunately, those three factors are also highly correlated. Are they related to IQ? Not necessarily. Should society try to ease the burden of those three factors on aspiring students? Probably. They're structural/societal problems, not the personal failings of a particular individual.

Anonymous said...

The first two articles are here:

I think that universal college education is a pipedream, and it is certainly watering down the universities---particularly in the fields that set low standards, and so get the students who flunk out of more rigorous fields.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a community college in California and I have been worried over the last few years about the increasing pressure on high schools to prepare all of their students for attending college. Going to college right out of high school is just not the best option for everyone. Many students who are fully capable of attaining a traditional college education would benefit much more from it after a year or two in the work world. Many other students are talented in fields not traditionally supported by a four-year college degree, particularly the technical kinds of trades and many of the performing arts. And some students will not be able to do the traditional college work no matter how they are prepared in high school. What worries me the most is the message that students are getting -- "Society believes that you are not successful (read 'worthy') as a person unless you go to college." This is absolutely not true, but how could high school students know?
Because of the push to get them all in college right away, many other paths to becoming a fulfilled, contributing citizen are being ignored.
And I see students in my classes failing, and thinking that there is something wrong with them, when really it is something wrong with what society is telling them they have to do.

Anonymous said...

perhaps not exactly on topic but,

We fail to acknowledge that often the same hurdles in primary and secondary also occur at the college level for our Gifted students.

It is well noted that many Gifted people tend have noted strengths in certain areas, these same students also tend to be very passionate about their strengths and avoid their weaker areas- so when they attend a University and are forced to yet again have a well round educational approach, is it any wonder that they are not always so successful? Specialized and vocational certification have a horrible stigma that they were created for only those who are not "smart enough" As we have Gifted Learners need a specialized educational plan in the lower levels, would it not make sense for them to also have that option as young adults?

I would like to see Universities focusing on creating the "expert" vs a jack of all trades- certainly having more programs that are labeled to create Experts vs Vocational regardless of the same purpose would perhaps remove some stigma- but do you think Universities are readily going to give up two years of potential tutition?

Anonymous said...

i heard this well meaning advice-
you go to college to figure out what you want to do with your go to Grad school to equip youself to find a job.
i think this stands for all children.
my only problem is high tuition and exaggerated expectations of the society from schools. learning begins at home and college gives children an opportunity to extend their childhood a few more years before transitioning into adulthood.
the K- 12 system needs to be revamped with children as the focus and not politics.
it is not a sin to be gifted. do not ostracize them. support them and they can help bring back'Made in America' in no time.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the California Community College teacher about the lack of career choices for everyone and the shame at choosing one that does not involve a four year degree. I am attending a Community college for the first time. I am taking math classes for the first time (in well over 20 years) to take an exam to become a Middle School Math Teacher and then hopefully a curriculum specialist. I am so impressed with Community Colleges - and plan to use the degree plans in my seventh and eighth grade math lessons. Most students will attend a Community College these days - either for certifications or for AP courses.
However, College Algebra (which includes HS Algebra II) is required for most trade and vocational certifications and Associate Degrees. Algebra is not just for college kids anymore! Many students dropped my College Algebra class last semester. It seems ridiculous to have students take a class that covers logarithms and polynomials so they can receive some of these vocational degrees. Many drop out of the programs rather than complete Algebra.