Monday, October 20, 2008

Are Too Many People Going to College?

It's been a while since we've had a good Charles Murray discussion here on Gifted Exchange, but since we're debating the use of IQ tests in designating children as gifted, I figure now is the time. Murray, co-author of the highly controversial book The Bell Curve, has a new book out called “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality." An excerpt ran as part of a cover package in September's American. That essay was called "Are Too Many People Going to College?" (Hopefully we will get a chance to discuss the other "simple truths" at a later point).

The gist of Murray's argument is this: Large percentages of American high school graduates are now attempting to earn 4-year degrees. Some reformers want every student to attempt college. But in the process of expanding access to college, educators and administrators have watered much of it down, to the point where a BA is now merely a signal to employers that the person has some level of motivation and competence. Hence, requiring a BA for a job is an easy way to do a first cut on resumes. As employers require degrees for occupations that don't really require degrees, this increases the pressure on ever more students to go to college. The result is an expensive waste of time for most people.

For starters, big chunks of people are not going to enjoy a liberal arts education -- not because they're stupid but because it's not where their interests lie. Everyone needs a survey of the liberal arts (and certain cultural knowledge), but this should be covered in K-12. Many very good occupations -- electrician, skilled craftsman, etc. -- are better learned in trade schools, community colleges, or through on-the-job apprenticeships. While it appears that people with BAs earn more than people without them, Murray notes that this is a bell curve. A very good electrician earns more than he would if he became a mediocre white collar employee. And if he likes working with his hands or, say, accomplishing something each day, he will definitely enjoy life more than he would filing expense reports. It's only our own snobbishness that we treat, oh, say "Joe the Plumber" as less worthy because he does skilled labor rather than sending silly emails and crunching spreadsheets all day. And frankly, the spreadsheet cruncher doesn't need a BA either.

Second, even though college is watered down, a BA is still not achievable for a great number of people. Large numbers of people drop out. That wouldn't be a problem, except that when we expect everyone to go to college, not going to college marks someone as a failure from the start. That makes class divisions even worse in our society.

Here's Murray's take:

"Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education and you were made a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it."

I think Murray's got an interesting idea here -- that our system of higher education has become pretty problematic. Plenty of people managed to get good jobs with high school diplomas in the past. Not just mindless assembly-line kinds of jobs that have long been outsourced. I mean jobs like, say, journalist. But, of course, many high schools now show a total lack of rigor. Students graduate without knowing much about economics, or our system of government, or how to express themselves clearly. So it's been left to college to fill in those gaps. In some occupations, I'm even hearing that a master's degree has become the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. Now that many people have a BA, you need a better signal. Where does this end?

As societies with any sort of inflation have discovered, it's hard to reverse these expectations. Individuals who choose not to go to college face a hard battle in a tough job market. And even if they don't -- Alaska "First Dude" Todd Palin, for instance, made about $100,000 a year in his blue collar work without a college degree -- these people often face contempt from those who did go to college.

Two things could reverse the degree inflation. The first -- an actual, rigorous, high school education system and a top-notch professional training and apprenticeship system -- will be a long and unsure road. The second, unfortunately, might be the declining student loan market. If it becomes harder to get loans for a 4-year degree, fewer people may attempt it. If Murray is right, if this pushes smart people to do jobs they are more suited for, this may actually be a net benefit for many people and society in general -- a tiny silver lining of the credit crunch.

What do you think? Are too many people going to college? Has college become what high school used to be?


InTheFastLane said...

Interesting. The goal of college seems almost like the NCLB goal of having 100% of students on grade level. Both are unattainable. My job does not need a masters degree most days. Yet it was required. My dad has a BS and makes WAY more than I do, but to get his job now, a student would need a higher degree.

The question is, what jobs are there that will still be around for the long road, that really do not take the amount of education that seems to be required? And what jobs that currently do not take a degree at all, are going to still be available and pay enough to live off of and not taken over by automated processes?

dgm said...

I can't help but see here a parallel with the push to make every family in America a homeowner.

H said...

What do you think? Are too many people going to college? Has college become what high school used to be?

Yes and yes. This was an excellent article, thank you. I agree, many jobs don't need an expensive B.A. And yes, academically, college is taking the place of high school.

As it is, I know well-read 12 yr. olds who seem more educated than some folks with a state college B.A.. I am still trying in middle age to educate myself and fill in gaps from my spotty public education. The internet and the public library are my allies. I am home schooling my children because the public school takes so long to teach so little. More choice in K-12 schooling could all allow students to "claim their education". I'm thinking of PT enrollment, FT gifted programs, university model a la carte selection, charter schools, smaller class size, on-line schools, rewarding and recruiting qualified teachers, and dare I say it...vouchers. Any other ideas?

Anonymous said...

Are too many people going to college? YES! YES! YES! I agree that today's college is yesterday's high school. One need only look at the overlap of high school and college courses. At my daughter's high school, by taking dual enrollment courses, a student can graduate from high school with over 30 hours of college credit.

I'm a college math professor at a state university and we still offer algebra in our department. I'm amazed at this. At the local high school, advanced students take this course in 9th grade and the masses take it in 10th grade. Yet it is a college course! Puhleez!

Not everyone needs to go to college. I would further argue that not everyone needs to go to high school. The mechanical genius kid should not have to sit through four years of literature in high school. Let him do an apprenticeship somwhere and give him a diploma!

As someone with a view from the university side...the reason is simple. We want your tuition money. We want your warm body in our classes so that we can add one more student to our enrollment, so that we can argue to the state legislature that we need more funds for faculty and facilities.

Should everyone go to college? Sure, and every person should own a house, whether he can afford it or not.

Anonymous said...

We don't have enough professional jobs to meet the growing demand of graduates.

Supply and demand. The overabundance of graduates has deflated the value of a bachelor's degree.

If this trend keeps up you can wave bye-bye to the value of a master's degree.

Trade-schools aren't even a guarantee anymore. They have just as much potential to suck you in with promises of lucrative salary packages and job placement.

I think more and more Americans are waking-up and realizing that, for the most part, higher education is a for-profit business that only wants your money.

That is why my siblings left America and received their educations abroad.

Liberal education policies are not the main culprit of the problem. There are many nations that offer free educations and most of them are not anywhere near the degree of our current economic depression.

You also must take into consideration how many jobs we send overseas.