’Too many people are going to college‘

If half of our high school graduates can squeeze into a four-year program and emerge clutching a BA or a BS, what is the value of such a diploma?

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If half of our high school graduates can squeeze into a four-year program and emerge clutching a BA or a BS, what is the value of such a diploma?

Th Too 01
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By Jeff Bairstow

The quote above is one of the four central topics that make up the skeleton of an intriguing new book, Real Education, Four Simple Truths For Bringing America‘s Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray (New York, Crown Forum, 2008). The other three “simple truths,” as postulated by Murray, are “Ability Varies,” and “Half of the Children Are Below Average,” and “America‘s Future Depends On How We Educate the Academically Gifted.” How could anyone disagree with these statements?

In about 150 pages of highly readable text, the author, a controversial political scientist, based in Washington, D.C., at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, makes a strong case for the reform of American education from kindergarten through post-doctoral studies. I highly recommend you read this little book, whether you are on the conservative or liberal side of the political spectrum.

Murray certainly is no stranger to controversy. In 1994, with the late Richard Herrnstein, Murray coauthored the best-selling book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The central premise of this book is that childhood intelligence (as measured by “intelligence quotient” or IQ) is a better predictor of adult performance than parental socioeconomic or educational status. Unfortunately, the authors were misinterpreted as implying that IQ differences were genetic although the writers took no definitive position on this issue in the book. Remember, too, that, even today, there is considerable disagreement over the measurement, utility, and validity of the IQ.

But, let me return to one of the central points of Real Education: “too many people are going to college.” In the fall of 2005, notes Murrray, more than 1.5 million students enrolled in America‘s four-year colleges or universities. That‘s a whopping 50% of all U.S. high school graduates. Murray makes a good case for cutting that number down to 20% or even to 10%. This is one area where I find myself in almost complete agreement with Murray. If half of our-high school graduates can squeeze into a four-year program and emerge clutching a BA or a BS, what is the value of such a diploma?

The question is what exactly is a college education for? Is it to produce graduates with a broad-based liberal education or should it be the key that opens the door into the professions, such as journalism, accountancy, or optometry? Murray says the two routes should be totally different.

A typical curriculum at a liberal arts college could mean 32 semester-long courses leading to the conventional BA degree. While that may not be enough time for those who wish to study the classical Greek and Roman philosophers in their original languages, it would certainly be enough time for certification as an optometrist, say, or even a journalist. Indeed, most of the practical education in the latter subjects comes largely as experience in the real (noncollege) world.

Thus, if 10% of high school graduates are admitted to liberal arts schools in pursuit of a BA degree, many of the 40% of high school grads currently enrolling in four-year colleges could go to smaller, more directed institutions or even to two-year community colleges and then gain practical competence in the “real world.” Four years of combined academic and practical experience might lead to a BS degree in, say, journalism. If all this sounds somewhat esoteric then it most certainly is!

Conventional wisdom has it that college graduates potentially have earnings at higher levels than nongraduates. However, the demand for middle managers falls off rapidly during economic downturns. But demand for people who are skilled with their hands, such as electricians, plumbers, computer and communications technicians, is increasing steadily. Indeed, Murray quotes numbers from the Web site of the Bureau of Labor statistics showing that highly competent electricians had incomes of more than $70,000 in 2005. As Murray notes, “In today‘s America, ... finding first-rate skilled labor is hard.”

Make no mistake about it. The changes that Charles Murray is proposing are radical but, to me, appear eminently feasible. And radical changes in all levels of education are definitely coming, in my view.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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