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?