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Is College Worth It?—Part II

November 20, 2008

Over a week ago I posted Part I of this series. This might be the final part—but I’m going to leave the series open-ended.

This week’s installment comes courtesy of the now infamous Charles Murray. I’ve posted on another Murray article here before. Let’s put it this way: I’m not a fan. He co-authored The Bell Curve with Richard Herrnstein, published in 1996. That book argued, in essence, that it was worthless to expend time, money, and energy to educate students whose IQ test results were too low. The authors favored nature over nurture in IQ determinations.

But let’s take Dr. Murray’s current contribution to the debate on college’s worth as is—line by line. My comments are interspersed, and all italics, bolds, and underlines are mine.


Down with the Four-Year College Degree!

by Charles Murray

The proposition that I hereby lay before the house is that the BA degree is the work of the devil. It wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.

TL: It’s nice to see a clear thesis upfront.

Before explaining why, let me specify a few things that I am not arguing.

I am not complaining that too many people are getting education after high school. On the contrary, I am in favor of education after high school for almost all young people.

I am not denying that that possession of a BA is statistically associated with higher income across the life span, and that this economic benefit persists after controlling for measures of human capital (e.g., IQ scores), field of study, and other background variables.

I am not disparaging the value of a liberal education, classically understood. On the contrary, I think far too few young people are exposed to the stuff of a liberal education (that’s the last I’m going to say on that issue in this presentation. There’s a long discussion of liberal education in the book.)

TL: The book? So Murray’s writing a book on either bachelors degrees or liberal education? Hmm… [From below I learned that the book’s title is Real Education.]

Why the Current System Doesn’t Make Sense

So what’s my beef with the current system? Perhaps the easiest way to introduce the argument is to ask you to imagine that you have been made a member of a task force to design America’s post-secondary education system from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”

TL: Getting a BA is not strictly a four-year proposition. But I’m most curious to hear how Murray will expand on line two. The third line fits with the rest of Murray’s prior, anti-democratic rhetoric. He has never grasped the fact that “adequate ability” is something gained WHILE being educated: the point of education is to confer ability, not verify or confirm it (at least not until “the end” of the process). So all educational theorists and educators should remain silent on questions of ability that do not involve innate, extreme challenges. And where are people “stigmatized” who do not earn the BA? Who is doing this stigmatizing? None of my highly educated friends. Does this say more about Murray’s crowd and his predispositions than his general reading audience? Let’s continue…

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that’s the system we have. It doesn’t make sense. Here’s why:

…which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught.

Four years makes sense for students who are trying to get a liberal education and therefore need to take a few dozen courses in philosophy, religion, classical and modern literature, the fine arts, classical and modern history (including the history of science), plus acquire fluency in a foreign language and take basic survey courses in the social sciences. The percentage of college students who want to do that is what? Ten percent? Probably that is too optimistic. Whatever the exact figure, it is a tiny minority.

TL: What does want have to do with it? Core curricula subjects are not determined based on wants, but rather are the result of an organized, structured philosophy of education that is intended to extend a students learning in those areas. The key is explaining to our young adults WHY taking these subjects is important. You don’t solve this problem by eliminating it, but by educating for it. If there is a problem out there, it’s that first-year college students are not consistently given the explanation for what’s happening.

For everyone else, four years is ridiculous. Assuming a semester system with four courses per semester, four years of class work means thirty-two semester-long courses. The occupations that require thirty-two courses are exceedingly rare. In fact, I can’t think of a single example. Even medical school and Ph.D.s don’t require four years of course work. For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, the classes needed for the academic basis for competence take a year or two. Actually becoming good at one’s job usually takes longer than that, but competence in any profession is mostly acquired on the job. The two-year community college and online courses offer more flexible options than the four-year college for tailoring academic course work to the real needs of students.

TL: Okay, I undercut some of this above. But, per the “occupation” question, I covered this in Part I. It assumes that your pointing a BA toward a job. That’s the first thing that has to be redirected for non-engineering, non-nursing, non-teaching students bachelors students. I forward this: the BA is not something that should ever be assumed will get you a job. Rather, the BA is something that prepares you to be the best citizen and the most intelligent human being ~you~ can be. It’s clear that high schools do not accomplish this today. Since secondary education either can not or does not help intellectually as much as it should, this function has reverted to college—the BA degree.

…attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned.

The BA really does confer a wage premium on its average recipient, but there is no good reason that it should.

TL: It’s becoming more and more clear that Murray’s arguments against the BA have to do with a correlation: attendant earnings. Also, Murray’s piece assumes, at least mildly, that the BA is currently required of us all. That’s not the case, definitely not in any de jure sense and only mildly in a de facto one.

First, consider professions in which the material learned in college is useful for job performance, such as engineering, the sciences, and business majors. [TL: I’d even exclude business majors here.] Take the specific case of accounting. It is possible to get a BA (I use BA as a generic term embracing the BS) in accounting. There is also the CPA exam required to become a Certified Public Accountant. The CPA test is thorough (four sections, timed, totaling fourteen hours). To achieve a passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50 percent for all four tests). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting capability. If I am an employer of accountants and am given the choice between an applicant with a mediocre CPA score but a BA in accounting and another who studied accounting on-line, has no degree, but does have a terrific CPA score, explain to me why should I be more attracted to the applicant with the BA

TL: The CPA/BA accounting example is not a good one to argue against the BA in general. But if that accounting BA came from a school with a strong core curriculum in the humanities, I’d say it ~might~ be possible to combine both ends to get the civic/intellectual inculcation came with the old school BA.

The merits of the CPA exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: journalism, criminal justice, social work, public administration, and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science, engineering, engineering technology, and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2005. In every one of those cases, a good certification test would tell employers more about the applicant’s skills than the BA does.

TL: Again, the question is whether the school from which the vocational degree is offered also compels those students to learn the liberal arts through a core curriculum. If not, then you could probably do away with the BA before testing into those fields—provided the members of those fields are willing to accept skilled workers with the civic and intellectual maturity of high schoolers with regard to the humanities. So maybe Murray needs to convince the AICPA that the BA is unnecessary?

Now consider job applicants for whom the material learned in college is, to put it charitably, only indirectly related to job performance. I am referring to people like me (BA in Russian history), and BAs in political science, sociology, English lit, the fine arts, and philosophy, not to mention the flakier majors (e.g., gender studies). For people like us, presenting a BA to employers amounts to presenting them with a coarse indicator of our intelligence and perseverance. If we have gone to an elite college, it is mostly an indicator of what terrific students we were in high school (getting into Harvard and Duke is really tough, but getting through Harvard and Duke for students not in math or science is really easy).

TL: If I were being charitable to Dr. Murray, I’d say this is just him being humble. But I truly think he’s either forgotten or radically underestimated a number of things that can, or should be, associated with earning the BA: critical thinking ability, learning new realms of sub-languages within English—some call this thinking philosophically and making distinctions, understanding difference (race, class, ethnicity, religion, regional), increased cultural literacy, gaining an ability to relate on deeper levels, etc.

Yes, the wage premium for college is associated with these majors as well, but please don’t tell me it’s because employers think college augmented our human capital. Employers are not stupid. They know that college might have augmented our human capital. Occasionally, college does teach students to become more rigorous thinkers and writers, and those are useful assets to take into a job. But employers also know that it would be foolish to assume that the typical college graduate has sought out the most demanding teachers and slaved over the syntax and logic of his term papers. The much more certain implication of the BA is that its possessors have a certain amount of raw intellectual ability that the employer may be able to exploit after the proper job training.

TL: Here Murray is radically underestimating the things that employers want. A properly earned BA that inculcates the humanities doesn’t merely augment one’s being. It changes you. This is something that either can or should be more than occasional. And of course the BA also says something about one’s drive and perseverance. …Again, all bets are off with regard to my arguments if the BA does not have a core curriculum or strong liberal arts component.

Finally, consider the hundreds of thousands of students who go to college just because they have had it pounded into their heads since childhood that the good jobs require a BA. The wage premium that shows up in regression equations may or may not apply to them. In Real Education, I offer an extended example involving a hypothetical young man graduating from high school who is at the 70th percentile in intellectual ability–smart enough to get a BA in today’s world–but just average in intrapersonal and interpersonal ability. He is at the 95th percentile in the visual-spatial and small motor skills useful in becoming a top electrician. He is trying to decide whether to go to college, major in business, and try to become a business executive, or instead become an electrician.

TL: Again, these “hundreds of thousands” of young adults were probably not strongly and consistently presented with alternate, valid, useful, and more foundational reasons for attendance. That’s a correctable problem, and certainly not strong grounds for arguing against aspiring toward the BA.

The bottom line of the example is that he cannot compare the mean income of business managers to the mean income of electricians. If his configuration of abilities means that he could get a BA in today’s colleges, but his cognitive and interpersonal skills are minimal for success in business, he has to recognize that he will be at a huge disadvantage in the competition for promotions after he gets his entry-level white-collar job. The relevant income figures are those for people in the bottom few deciles of the distribution of income for business managers. If his configuration of abilities means that he could become an excellent electrician, he needs to focus on the income of electricians in the top few deciles of that distribution.

TL: But, Dr. Murray, we do want the very best citizens possible to consider being electricians, yes? Doesn’t the inculcation of the liberal arts matter to them as well? If not the 4-year BA, then at least a 2-year one? Is it not true that high school doesn’t prepare people adequately to become U.S. citizens and to see education in a different light on the college level? I mean, many students get inspired by the less rigid methods of instruction and discipline that are magically conferred on college-aged students. This sometimes frees their psychic energy up for actual learning and studies. Let’s give high schoolers the chance to experience the new, exciting setting before we say they shouldn’t strive for it.

We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them.

Historically, an IQ of 115 or higher was deemed to make someone “prime college material.” That range comprises about 16 percent of the population. Since 28 percent of all adults have BAs, the IQ required to get a degree these days is obviously a lot lower than 115. But the cognitive ability required to cope with genuine college-level material has not changed. A recent study of “college readiness” by the College Board asked what SAT scores were required to have a 65 percent chance of maintaining a 2.7 grade average in the freshman year in a sample of 41 major institutions that included both state universities and elite schools. The answer was a combined SAT Verbal and Math score of 1180, a score that only about ten percent of 18-year-olds could get if everyone took the SAT. Nor was this requirement inflated by the inclusion of the elite colleges in the sample-the difference in the benchmark scores for unselective and selective universities was a trivial 23 points.

TL: Again, this assumes, or at least underestimates, that IQ can’t change with environment. Go here for more on that debate.

So even though college has been dumbed down, it is still too intellectually demanding for a large majority of students, in an age when about 50 percent of all high school graduates are heading to four-year colleges the next fall. The result is lots of failure. Of those who entered a four-year college in 1995, only 58 percent had gotten their BA five academic years later. Another 14 percent were still enrolled. If we assume that half of that 14 percent eventually get their BAs, about a third of all those who entered college hoping for a BA leave without one, often after accumulating a large student-loan debt.

If these numbers had been produced in a culture where the BA was a nice thing to have but not a big deal, they could be interpreted as the result of young adults deciding that they didn’t really want a BA after all. Instead, these numbers were produced by a system in which having a BA is a very big deal indeed, and that brings us to the increasingly worrisome role of the BA as a source of class division.

TL: But these numbers could also be attributed to the lack of adaptive services offered by colleges. Improving the environment of a “substandard” prospect for college is the democratic way of doing things. It helps improve the equality of outcome without making equality of outcome the end all, be all.

We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal.

The United States has always had symbols of class, and the college degree has always been one of them. But through the first half of the twentieth century, there were all sorts of respectable reasons why a person might not go to college–not enough money to pay for college; needing to work right out of high school to support a wife, parents, or younger siblings; or the commonly held belief that going straight to work was better preparation for a business career than going to college.

TL: No, the college degree has not ~always~ been one of them. It became so in the late nineteenth century—when college began to be something attainable by more and more of those outside the genteel class (see the Morrill Acts for more on this).

As long as the percentage of college graduates remained small, it also remained true, and everybody knew it, that the majority of America’s intellectually most able people did not have BAs.

TL: “And everybody knew it.” “Most able.” Sigh. This kind of false, sweeping generalization makes it difficult to take Dr. Murray’s article seriously. It’s a disservice to rigor required of him to earn his doctorate.

Over the course of the twentieth century, three trends gathered strength. The first was the increasing proportion of jobs screened for high academic ability due to the advanced level of education they require–engineers, physicians, attorneys, college teachers, scientists, and the like. The second was the increasing market value of those jobs. The third was the opening up of college to more of those who had the academic ability to go to college, partly because the increase in American wealth meant that more parents could afford college for their children, and partly because the proliferation of scholarships and loans made it possible for most students with enough academic ability to go. The combined effect of these trends has been to overturn the state of affairs that prevailed through World War II. Now the great majority of America’s intellectually most able people do have a BA.

TL: That last sentence is, well, wow. It’s absurd. It might—maybe—be true if it were reworded as follows:

“According to our most popular but imperfect predictor, the IQ test (as represented by some combination of the SAT, ACT, high school grades, and the perceptions of college admissions folks), we are educating the great majority of our most able citizens to obtaining the BA credential. But our means of determining IQ does not properly account for envirnonmental and economic factors that might skew an IQ snapshot. Therefore the U.S. has no real concrete sense of how many of our “intellectually most able people” are getting a chance to earn and finish the BA. Until that moment is reached, we should try and give every single willing aspirant the chance to earn a BA. The potential economic and social rewards of this kind of total education plan far outweigh the present costs. And precedent for this total higher education comprehensiveness already exists in some European countries”

…Back to Dr. Murray.

Along with that transformation has come a downside that few anticipated. The acceptable excuses for not going to college have dried up. The more people who go to college, the more stigmatizing the failure to complete college becomes. Today, if you do not get a BA, many people assume it is because you are too dumb or too lazy. Face it: To say “I’m just a high school graduate” as of 2008 is to label oneself in some important sense as a second-class citizen. No amount of protestations of egalitarianism by people who like the current system (i.e., people who do well in an academic setting) will change that reality-a reality fostered by a piece of paper that for most students in most majors is close to meaningless.

TL: If we tested motivations for college better, we could arrange for an alternate system of post-high school job training. Everyone needs some training post-high school—whether its for carpentry, computer programming, sales, delivery driving, beauty school, or whatever. The problem right now is not that people aren’t offered college, but they’re offered it for the wrong reasons (i.e. more money). Let’s sell what’s really there before we claim that “the BA is the work of the devil.”

Testing Is Ideal

And so I have taken as my mission to do everything I can to undermine the BA. [TL: Unsuccessfully.] The good news is that the conditions are right for change. There is a diverse world of work out there, filled with jobs that are interesting, well-paying, and intrinsically rewarding, that do not call for the kind of training that colleges are designed to provide. There is a vital and growing world of on-line education that is revolutionizing the possibilities for delivering post-secondary education.

TL: Of course this will involve getting HR folks to lower the bar from the BA. And those folks are trained with BAs. But again, there’s no need to replace the BA. It just needs to be modified in light of some vocational goals. And, barring those specialized BAs, there’s nothing but prejudice that prevents our tradeswomen and men from having a BA (provided the BA is affordable).

No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA. Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted like the CPA exam. But when so many of the players would benefit, a market opportunity exists. If a high-profile testing company such as the Educational Testing Service were to reach a strategic decision to create definitive certification tests, it could coordinate with major employers, professional groups and nontraditional universities to make its tests the gold standard. A handful of key decisions could produce a tipping effect. Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth require scores on a certain battery of certification tests for all of its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the industry.

TL: Again, I don’t disapprove—so long as the BA pursuit is not dissuaded for the wrong reasons.

In my ideal system, the college campuses of America will still exist and they will still be filled with students. Some of those students will be staying for four years as before, but many others will be arriving and leaving on schedules that make sense for their own goals. The colleges in my ideal system will have had to adapt their operations to meet new demands, but changes in information technology are coming so fast that major adaptation is inevitable anyway.

TL: But your colleges will be filled only with those approved by the current IQ determining regime. It’ll be a system that dissuades Blacks, Hispanics, and lower-income whites from attending. And your system does not (apparently) fill the reason-for-going gap that’ll exist when you remove middle-class income as a goal. Hopefully Dr. Murray’s conception of the liberal arts is more democratic than his vision of IQ.

The greatest merit of my ideal system is this: Hardly any jobs will still have the BA as a requirement for a fair shot at being hired. Employers will rely more on direct evidence about what the job candidate knows, less on where it was learned or how long it took.

TL: Fine. The BA will be a value-added component with regard to necessary technical skills.

To me, the most important if most intangible benefit of my ideal system is that the demonstration of competency in European history or marketing or would, appropriately, take on similarities to the demonstration of competency in cooking or welding. Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best.

TL: The IQ test does this as much as the current system for attaining a BA.

Here’s the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of history professors and business executives as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence–treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone–is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.

TL: I agree heartily with the first four sentences of this conclusory paragraph. Only the last sentence is a problem. Removing monetary expectations from the BA credential while still supporting it as a viable, useful, very important endpoint should be the overall goal. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. – TL

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  1. There's a lot here, including a ton of completely unsubstantiated claims (claims often disproved by the preponderance of evidence), but Murray's argument – as expected – is solely about capitalist utility. He is not, in any way, interested in citizenship, humanity, or civilization.

    I could pull out Kliebard and read all the same arguments about secondary education in the US from 100 years ago. The assumptions being that (a) humans are fixed entities, they cannot be improved or improve themselves through exposure to new things, (b) humans must thus be processed – in order to be directed into occupations which will enrich the elite, (c) humans should only be given enough to ensure that they do not rebel, (d) most humans are incredibly stupid and not worth wasting time on.

    In Murray's world no autoworker would ever be interested in drama or philosophy, no accountant in literature, no doctor in art. Nor would those “peripheral” topics have any “value” in their lives.

    But we know this. Murray is not an academic. He does not do research. Nor is he a public intellectual (someone like Edward Said) bringing novel discourses to expand human understanding. He is simply a shill for a certain brand of elite power politics.

    And I say this being quite a fan of the differentiated “stopping points” in the British education system.

    Ira Socol


  2. Ira,

    Agreed on Murray—except that he's considered a public intellectual to some segment of the population. Therefore we have to be ready to meet and counter his arguments. This is what “think tanks” do for _____ [Fill in your interest group] ______. He's doing what's expected of him, and furthering his agenda.

    And differentiated stopping points is a lot different than the undemocratic pseudo-tracking system that Murray wants us to follow.

    I actually don't think that Murray wants his students to “enrich the elite” so much as not suck resources from the system that could be used to further develop intellectual elites already identified. In other words, get those who show no “eliteness” (early on and quantitatively w/r/t IQ tests) out of the way to help polish the diamonds in the rough.

    A problem I have with his thinking is that intellectual ability is not like athletic ability in that it is seen at some point in someone's youth. Intellectual ability is something that has to be consistently and continuously nurtured. Then, in the future, like the long germinating oak acorn, a beautiful strong sapling emerges. The arc of intellectual development reaches no substantial, indicative highpoint in someone's youth—or least it doesn't operate that way for everyone. And isn't a fully developed, mature IQ of 115 much better than a half-assed IQ of 140? (Note: I know little about these numbers, except that I think those are near some averages).

    …To be continued.

    – TL


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  4. I have to admit that “learning” has almost disappeared from the things that I think my students do. Nothing against my current school at all–I think it's a decent place, but it ain't no home to the liberal arts (the Philosophy/Religious Studies department –yes, they're combined–has about 6 profs in total). I agree with you about college being a place to learn, explore, etc. That's what it was for me, and for most of my friends. But getting that message through to people who went to some spartan state school is nearly impossible. They had huge lectures, TAs, boring labs, profs who didn't know their names, etc, etc, etc. How could they possibly even understand what we are talking about? Contemplate? With all that football and basketball going on?


  5. CM,

    The problem just might be that there are too many medium and large colleges. Those sizes of institutions require economies of scale
    (i.e. lecturing, TAs, research requirements, etc.) that are detrimental to the student. I'm not saying, conversely, that a badly run small college is better than a medium or large one, but I think the potential of smaller colleges is higher. This is me taking for granted, correctly I think, the notion that smaller class sizes matter. So as a nation we're not spending enough on higher edu to commit to smaller institutions where students can really be reached and held accountable. I mean, learning is about reaching people (i.e. engagement) and holding them accountable (papers, tests, quizzes, class discussions, etc.).

    – TL


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