‘College-For-Everybody’ Agenda

The following is a Forbes article by Tom Lindsay:

How the ‘College-For-Everybody’ Agenda Harms both Students and the Economy

Many in higher education worry continuously over the fact that only roughly half of students who enroll in college ever graduate, and that those who do graduate often take more than four years to do so. But few seek to go to the roots to attempt to discover the ultimate causes explaining these depressing statistics. One of the few who makes such an attempt is Charles Murray, whose contrarian explanation is, “Too many people are going to college.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with its conclusions, Murray’s Real Education, published in 2008, has received far less attention than the gravity of its arguments merits. Real Education defends what he deems are four simple truths about education, but truths that cannot be said publicly without engendering the wrath of a culture fallen prey to what he labels “educational romanticism.” They are “(1) ability varies; (2) half of the children are below average; (3) too many people are going to college; and (4) America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.”

The American education system, says Murray, “is living a lie. The lie is that every child can be anything he or she wants to be.” The lie is bipartisan, he argues; it spans both Republican and Democratic Party platforms, its unrealistic assumptions driving and distorting both K-12 and higher-education policy.

In higher education, the vision “that everyone should go to college”—like all well-intentioned projects suffering only tenuous connections to reality—asks “too much from those at the bottom, . . . the wrong things from those in the middle, . . . and too little from those at the top.”

How many students, then, should go to college? In answering, Murray makes a key distinction—between “college-level instruction in the core disciplines of the arts and sciences” versus “the courses (and their level of difficulty) that are actually offered throughout much of the current American college system.” The difference between the two is large and widening. If getting a diploma proves the ability to “’cope with college-level material,’” then “almost anyone” can succeed who merely “shops for easy courses in an easy major at an easy college.” However, once we shift our focus to “college-level material traditionally defined, the requirements become stringent,” and toward satisfying this stricter demand, “no more than 20 percent of all students” qualify.

But if this is true, what of democracy’s rightful wish to see as many as possible benefit from a liberal education that fulfills John Stuart Mill’s vision of engendering “capable and cultivated human beings”? Murray agrees that more students should receive the “basics of a liberal education.” Nevertheless, the place for most students to do this is, he argues, in elementary and middle school, not college. K-8 education should seek to inculcate the core knowledge described in E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy—knowledge that “makes us Americans together rather than hyphenated Americans.”

Murray’s critique is not “the same as saying that the average student does not need to know about history, science, and great works of art, music, and literature.” Instead, he urges that we “not wait for college” to teach these subjects. In college, the study of these subjects should go much deeper; it should require close, careful reading of the foundational texts that constitute what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been said and thought in the world.” For example, reading “the Odyssey in ninth grade is nothing like reading the Odyssey in a good college course.”

However, “most students at today’s colleges choose not to take the courses that go into a liberal education because the capabilities they want to develop lie elsewhere”—a fact that “colleges do their best to avoid admitting.” Instead, under universities’ “distribution requirements” (the sham version of a core curriculum), students can fulfill their humanities and literature requirements through taking courses such as Indiana University’s “History of Comic Book Art”; Dartmouth’s “Rock Music from 1970 to the Present,” and Duke’s “Campus Culture and Drinking,” to mention a few. Worse, the elite Brown and Vassar require no core courses, casting 18-year-olds into an endless abyss of “choice,” with neither compass nor yardstick.

Because universities are “no longer in the business of imparting a liberal education,” it follows that those students lacking the capacity for and/or interest in a genuine core curriculum should have “better options than going from high school to college.”

But what of the need for even these students to attend college to enhance their capacity to make a living? Murray responds that four-year brick-and-mortar residential colleges are “hardly ever” the best places to “learn how to make a living.” To begin, for most vocations, excluding fields such as medicine and law, four years of class work is not only “too long” but “ridiculous.” For many of such students, two-year community college degrees and online education provide “more flexible options for tailoring course work to the real needs of the job.”

Moreover, the brick-and-mortar campus is becoming “increasingly obsolete.” The “Internet is revolutionizing everything”— university libraries have lost their indispensable character, and both faculty research and faculty-student interaction no longer require the “physical proximity” that brick-and-mortar campuses make possible.

But what of the “wage premium” reaped by college graduates? For Murray, high-school graduates who pursue the B.A. primarily to boost their earning power are “only narrowly correct.” Doubtless, B.A.-holders earn more on average than those without degrees, but this due in part to a “brutal fact.” Given the increase in the number of college graduates over the past half-century (more than a third of 23-year-olds now hold B.A.s), “employers do not even interview applicants” without degrees. “Even more brutal,” the B.A.’s comparative advantage “often has nothing to do with the content of the education” received. The average employment gains of college graduates must be weighed against the fact that “wages within occupations form a distribution.” Therefore, a student with average academic skills but exceptional “small-motor skills and special abilities” is more likely both to earn more and to be happier as, say, an electrician than as a mediocre middle-manager.

In addition to being happier as an electrician, this student would benefit from the fact that “there has never been a time in history when people with skills not taught in college have been in so much demand at such high pay as today.” In fact, as in the case of the proficient electrician, the wages of top performers in a plethora of occupations not requiring a B.A. are “higher than the average income for many occupations that require a B.A.”

Murray presents a higher-education system in which too many students are forced to spend too much time chasing their tails. His thesis that too many are going to college today goes no small distance toward explaining why roughly half of those who enroll in college fail to graduate. It goes a long way toward explaining why, of those who do graduate, 36 percent show little-to-no increase in the critical-thinking and writing skills that a degree is supposed to signify. It goes a long way toward explaining why, in the ‘60s, college students studied on average 24 hours a week, whereas today they spend only 14. Finally, it goes a long way toward explaining the rampant grade inflation perpetrated by universities eager to “accommodate” the masses of new students in college who can’t cope there. In the ‘60s, 15 percent of college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, that percentage has nearly tripled: 43 percent of all grades today are A’s. In fact an A is now the most common grade given in college.

Higher-education reformers read the statistics above and pronounce higher education broken. If they hope to fix it, one indispensable step is to face Murray’s thesis without blinking.

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