Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Are Too Many Students Going to College?

By Bryan O’Keefe

That’s the question that Charles Murray, a prolific thinker and our friend up at AEI, asks in a provocative essay in today’s Wall Street Journal. Murray’s basic answer is yes and I would be inclined to agree.

Murray bases most of his argument on IQ scores, which is a topic that he has written about frequently over the years. He argues very persuasively that, based on IQ scores, only about 25 percent of high school graduates – at the max – should be attending college. Unfortunately, that number has soared to 45 percent in recent years, meaning that many students simply do not have the intellectual capabilities to sustain themselves in higher education – no matter how hard they try

He also makes the excellent point that many students really aren’t learning anything in college these days and that these students would be better off in either two-year colleges or pursuing vocational careers. I can second his notion about vocational careers with my own personal experience. A very good friend of mine from high school decided that instead of going to college, he would learn how to become a plumber. Through a combination of classes and apprenticeships, he has mastered the trade and now works as an industrial plumber and steamfitter, working on various large-scale industrial piping projects in the Pittsburgh area. He has a satisfying job and his income is well north of my own. Contrast that experience with many other people from my high school who were labeled as “not college material”. Most of these students took two paths: They tried to go to college and they failed miserably. Or they graduated from high school and didn’t do too much afterwards. Both of these groups usually end up in low-wage jobs and probably harbor some resentment about why they cannot get ahead more in life.

There is no doubt that both of these groups would have benefited enormously from learning a vocation or trade, like my friend. But psychologically, we have unfortunately conditioned students these days to think that it’s either succeeding in college or serving up hamburgers at McDonald’s, when, in reality, there are many more options available.

I won’t steal any more of Charles’s thunder, especially since he lays out the case better than I can.

(Another author who has written on this topic is Jackson Toby, a noted sociologist from Rutgers University, and somebody that CCAP is working with now on this subject.)


Rob Smith said...

Dr. Vedder,

I happen to agree with you and Charles Murray that the majority of people's intellectual capacity is not great enough to withstand the majority of current college courses. Should we funnel these people into vocational schools and help them obtain skills elsewhere, or treat a college education as a means of educating society and not as a way to obtain a job?

I think this is where the debate arises. Is the purpose of college to help people get jobs or is the point to make for a better educated society -- which is better informed to vote in a democracy and has a better understanding of the world? I happen to think it is the latter. If no one took courses in basic Economics, the majority of society would have no idea what the principles of free trade are and would therefore make ignorant decisions on who to elect (sometimes I think that we should teach these basic principles directly to our Congressmen and women). The same applies to courses in International Relations, Religion, and a whole slew of other basic education courses. If colleges treated education as it is supposed to be treated, which is to educate youth and not as a way to obtain a better job, our education systems would be a lot stronger and so would our society.

Sure, a lot of college courses are very tough, however, it is normally due to the fact that the professors are trying to make it that way so their grading curves are in line with the departments expectations. This is probably one of the most ridiculous things I have ever seen. College courses should not be Darwinistic -- the point is to educate people. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not to see who has a better memory or who is better at math. It is for the professor to take a set amount of information and input it into every student in the class. If this means every student gets an A, then so be it. Maybe if we treated education like this, and not try to make the curriculum so difficult that some students are forced to quit, we would be a lot more successful in educating people.

I am sure that a lot of people are better off not going to college and instead attending a trade school, however, what are the consequences on our overall educated society? While I happen to agree with you both that due to our current education curriculum a lot of students could leave and do more in a vocational school, however, I could not disagree with you more that the purpose of a college education is not to get a better job.

Nearly every single very successful businessman I have ever known (I am defining very successful as multi-millionaires) never went to college. I happen to work for a consultancy, where we do not care what type of degree you have, as long as you are educated -- nearly every single thing we do is learned on the job. I use virtually nothing I went to college for, however, I think that I can make better decisions on what is going on in the middle east, what the effects of the minimum wage increase will be, why the health care crisis is so tricky and many other things I can attribute to my education.

Think about what the consequences would be if no one understood how beneficial immigrant labor is to our economy. Think if we only sent our youth to become welders and plumbers and never taught them about the turmoil that has been going on in the Middle East for the past 2,000 years. What if the next generation never got to take a course in philosophy?

If it were up to me I would make everyone go to college. As John F. Kennedy said; "The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all." Lets continue to educate more youth and if they then want to become welders and plumbers, at least they will be educated welders and plumbers.

Rob Smith said...

Upon second review, I guess that I should have addressed my first post to Bryan O'Keefe and not Dr. Vedder. I just assumed it was Dr. Vedder who wrote this.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Smith,
I think one of Mr. O'Keefe's points is that some people simply are not capable of digesting the concepts introduced at college.

Do you think this could be possible?

--If so, which would you favor, to:
A) Lower the standards of all colleges by forcing professors to teach to the least common denominator
B) Hire more teachers (and pay each less) to ensure each student received maximum effort during the limited time for instruction.
C) Let the inevitable gap in the quality of institutions develop to the point that the vast majority of colleges are simply an extension to high school. (A baseline requirement for most employers holding little to no weight as to what the employee will have to offer the employer in intellectual ability)?

--If not, then you must believe that all human beings are physically capable of learning the same concepts. If this is the case, do you have any evidence to support this?

Rob Smith said...

Mr. Tefub,

Yes, it is possible that some people are not capable of digesting the concepts introduced at college. However, this is a very small percentage of society and only consists of those with extreme mental/learning disabilities. The overwhelming majority of people are able to grasp basic education when taught appropriately.

In choosing A, B, or C, I choose a combination of B and C. First, the overwhelming majority of universities have plenty of professors, they are just not utilizing them properly. As I have stated in previous posts, the research requirements should be scaled back dramatically for professors and their time should be devoted to teaching. To say that a university would need to hire more professors is ridiculous. Us working in the private sector work a hell of a lot more hours than any professor. We also don't get a month off for Christmas, all summer off, and every federal holiday. The resources are there, however, as is typical with a not-for-profit institution, they always get around solving every problem by claiming there is not enough money or not enough labor to accomplish the things that need to get done - which is to educate the next generation of our society.

The vast majority of educational institutions should be an extension to high school. Our world is growing more complex, the education standards of thirty years ago will not suffice for what the current generation needs to know to be contributing members to society. Education is not a trade school. If it took an education to make money, Andrew Carnegie would have been a pauper. It takes common sense and a hard work ethic to make money. It takes an educated society to understand complex issues such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, and trade. Therefore, we need an educated society to elect leaders who do not screw up our governing policies. These policies are growing ever more complex, if we can start holding high schools accountable and making them a good place to educate the next generation, I am all for that. However, as of now, they do not provide the necessary education for the majority of society to flourish.

To answer your final question of whether or not I believe all human beings are capable of learning the same concepts: Yes, I do think that taught properly, the majority of people have the intellectual capacity to receive a college education. It is when professors purposefully make courses difficult so they can hand the Dean an equally distributed grading scale that some kids get left behind. If all of the students get an A, who in the hell cares, that makes me happy. That means everyone of them leaves the course knowing 90% or more of the material. I consider that a success. If students do not feel like they are being challenged, there are advanced courses they can take. However, my entire point is that the point of education is to educate and that an educated society is a strong society. We should not run from this because it would mean changing our educational institutions.

Nerraw Tefub said...

Mr. Smith,

You make some very good points. I particularly agree with your arguments to:
-increase education to strengthen society
-increase the quality of teachers to enable them to actually facilitate learning for more students (as opposed to meeting a curve)
-increasing efficiency of our universities (making teachers work harder)

Acknowledge that these are the problems and then work more directly to solve each one. Keep it simple...

The main point of O'Keefe's post is that all high school graduates "simply do not have the intellectual capacity to sustain themselves in higher education - no matter how hard they try." This is based off of hard data (IQ tests).

You would argue that these students simply haven't been taught correctly. I actually agree...(Not based on any studies that I have read, but just from life experience)

However, I do not believe that paying college teachers less and decreasing the average standard of colleges is the best way to solve the problem that students are not being taught properly in high school.

Let's acknowledge that these are the problems that need solved and work more directly to solve them.

Just to reiterate, I agree that most human beings are capable of learning the same concepts if taught correctly. But I believe that by the time these people get to college the gaps between their levels of education inhibits teaching in groups as in a college settings. The fact is that teaching is and always will be time restricted. Students can't just be capable of learning concepts... they must be capable of learning concepts in the time allotted and with number and quality of teachers available.

I would be interested to know your background or where you were raised to think that all high school graduates could attend college (if they wanted to).

I suspect that you are young and have primarily only come in contact with educated people. This is not the group Mr. O'Keefe is talking about. He is talking about the rest of society. The blue-collar workers.

In my blue-collar work environment, I am surrounded by many people that I believe are capable of learning and growing, but the more time I spend trying to get everyone to the same level, the less we all move forward. But the less time I spend getting everyone to the same level, the harder it is to get everyone to move forward. Therefore it takes a balance of both. BUT everything becomes much easier if I get the right people in the jobs in the first place.

I would equate this to our current argument. The real goal is to increase the overall education of society.

If a human's education is a tree, his parents are his soil and climate, his K-12 education is his roots, and his college is simply the foliage. Parental education should be goal number one as anyone knows that sunlight and water is the best way to get a tree to grow. Then the next step is strong K-12 education for roots are essential to withstand future problems. The foliage will be the natural outgrowth of all of these.

The real solution is to stop arguing about college and focus on improving parents and K-12.