Not smart enough for college

Too many students go to four-year colleges without the intelligence to master college-level work or the motivation, writes Charles Murray in part 2 of his Opinion Journal series. Most would fare better learning job skills in a two-year college, he argues. This makes somewhat more sense than part 1 but I question his confidence that average people can’t benefit from higher education.

To have an IQ of 100 means that a tough high-school course pushes you about as far as your academic talents will take you. If you are average in math ability, you may struggle with algebra and probably fail a calculus course. If you are average in verbal skills, you often misinterpret complex text and make errors in logic.

. . . You are smart enough to engage in any of hundreds of occupations. You can acquire more knowledge if it is presented in a format commensurate with your intellectual skills. But a genuine college education in the arts and sciences begins where your skills leave off.

Murray asserts that a person with an IQ of 100 can’t understand Econ 1. I wonder how he knows this.

There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college — enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.

Many students smart enough for college are there only because their parents have pushed them and paid the bills, Murray adds. Colleges offer dumbed-down courses to accommodate the unswift and the unmotivated.

He looks forward to the day when employers require demonstrated skills — not a meaningless degree — as a prerequisite for a “good” job.

IQ is a touchy subject for me. I spent half my youth competing with my sister. I thought she was smarter than me because she was one year older. Eventually, I realized that she has a genius IQ. I don’t. I was an “overachiever,” doing better than I had any right to. My daughter, despite learning to read at two, was assigned an average IQ — not high enough to do well in college, according to Murray — by a psychologist who was doing a follow-up on three-year-olds who’d been through the intensive-care nursery. (I don’t think they asked her to read.) We both managed to pass Econ 1. And to graduate from Stanford.

I don’t want to see guys like Murray standing at the college door to keep out the merely average.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. The phrase “Not smart enough for college” is foolish and unfortunate, and misses the point. Many seemingly average students excel in college by sheer hard work, because they thrive in the environment.

    The flip side is that there are thousands of undergraduates who are absolutely miserable in college; they graduate with few useful skills and not enough theory or insight to land interesting jobs. Telling statistics are the low graduation rates and the fact that many universities (including mine) don’t even count an undergrad as “not graduated” until he’s been enrolled for SIX years.

    My sense of Murray’s article wasn’t that he wants to bar the door to college. Instead, I think he wants to remove the stigma from vocational schools so some students (men in particular) can learn useful skills in fields that interest them.

  2. Murray’s article was rather lame. It read like an exam paper done at the last moment, the night before it was due.

    Having said that, he does hit on one important point. There should be other options for people besides University. College is a ridiculously poor at training people for most jobs in the real world. As Murray points out, college has become little more than a litmus test for employers. My brother who is an electrical engineer for Boeing even admits that he maybe uses 10% of what he learned in college, and he has a Masters degree.

    For many many jobs, specific technical schools would probably be a much more cost effective and efficient way to train new employees. Witness the U.S.A.F., that manages to train 18 -21 year old kids to work on multi-million dollar aircraft, with only a few months of formal schooling, and a year of on the job training. In my field, nondestructive inspection, 22 year old’s are able to leave the Air Force after four years and get a job in the civilian sector earning $40,000 a year.

    Having lived in Europe for 12 years, I think that many European countries take a much more pragmatic approach to post secondary education. For example, the German model has industries working in partnership with government to create Berufsschule’s (vocational schools) that provide government certified certificates in over 400 different careers.

    Moving to a system like this, or similar, would serve several purposes. Employers would get employee’s with specific job knowledge, our college graduation rate should improve, and students without the desire to sit through four year’s of irrelevant classes would be able to quickly move into the workforce.

    Murray though doesn’t do the idea much justice. It’s as if he adopted it to make up for the political incorrectness of his research into the IQ gap. Of course, because of Murray’s perceived political leanings, his suggestions will be ignored… but good idea’s being ignored has become the norm in education policy these days, so why should this idea be any different.

    (cross posted at KTM, II and Parentalcation)

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    It’s an interesting article, but Murray isn’t talking about what college is right now; demonstrably, plenty of kids of average intelligence graduate from college. I grew up in an upper middle class suburb in New Jersey, and practically every one of my classmates went to college, even the ones who weren’t too bright.

    Instead, Murray’s talking about what he thinks college ought to be: a place of intellectual inquiry. And indeed, the top colleges and universities in the US are what Murray wants “colleges” to be.

    I agree with him that a lot of people who now go to college would be better off if the system were different, and if college weren’t a requirement for a good job. But I don’t know how we get from here to there.

  4. Murray asserts that a person with an IQ of 100 can’t understand Econ 1. I wonder how he knows this.

    He doesn’t.

  5. Indeed, I bet many people of average intelligence can learn calculus, if taught properly (and if they’ve been taught prereqs properly).

    I’m waiting to read the third installment before I say my full piece. I think Murray has some good points to make, but he keeps throwing in details that hurt rather than help his case, as he’s throwing in totally unfounded “facts” that people will be touchy about. People get hung up on the whole IQ thing that they get turned off before they see what his aim is.

  6. Isn’t college the new high school? A place which teaches basic literacy and numeracy? Murrary’s vision of college is available in a few highly selective colleges, providing they’re willing to “flunk out” some of the students who they’ve accepted who can’t or won’t make the effort.

    As to the skills for a job, give me a hard worker with even below average “g” intelligence over someone with a high IQ and low work ethic any day.

  7. Rory–”My brother who is an electrical engineer for Boeing even admits that he maybe uses 10% of what he learned in college”…but the particular 10% being used may vary from job to job, and even at different times within the same job.

    I do agree that college is often used as a means of passing a litmus test rather than for actual knowledge acquisition, but this is probably less true in engineering than in many other fields.

  8. wayne martin says:

    > Advances in technology are making the brick-and-mortar
    > facility increasingly irrelevant. Research resources on the
    > Internet will soon make the college library unnecessary.
    > Lecture courses taught by first-rate professors are already
    > available on CDs and DVDs for many subjects, and online
    > methods to make courses interactive between professors
    > and students are evolving.

    Good to see this sort of thinking in the public dialogue. Distance learning could change the terrain of college education if given a chance. People who might not be “smart enough” from a testable point-of-view could take classes at home, or on-line, to give themselves a chance to “audition” without having to put a long of money at risk. Survey/Introduction classes could be provided in this way, increasing the access to education, but not necessarily increasing the public/private investment in college/university infrastructure to accommodate students who will not complete their studies.

  9. Catch Thirty Thr33 says:

    Re: rory’s comment on the German educational approach:

    It looks and sounds good, but even the Germans themselves are not all that keen on that system anymore. Germany’s OECD rankings in education have slipped, according to “The Economist”, in a way that is quite shocking to Germans.

  10. Murray’s making the case that society overvalues intellectual pursuits to the disadvantage of those people better suited to less intellectually rigorous skills. We tend to look down on any job not requiring college degrees. Just look how some of us go to great lengths to “prove” that even average intelligences are quite up to econ 101. The point is, even if the average person can master econ 101, perhaps his efforts would yield greater satisfaction and results if he applied them to some other Endeavour. After all, he’ll be competing with people who will not need to put in as much effort. Why put economics ahead of another career choice? It kind of reminds me of all those poor singers who think they have a chance at American Idol. They have bought into the idea that heart and effort and desire are equivalent to natural talent.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    “Murrary’s vision of college is available in a few highly selective colleges, providing they’re willing to ‘flunk out’ some of the students who they’ve accepted who can’t or won’t make the effort.”

    The highly selective colleges are so selective that they rarely end up admitting students who can’t do the work. Students rarely flunk out, and if they do there’s usually some issue other than raw ability.

  12. Rory has a good point about the armed forces by necessity having to train people of any intelligence to perform complex tasks in a short time. Maybe we can learn from them how to set up an effective vocational education.

    If Cardinal Fang’s highly selective colleges means the Ivies, then the reason students rarely flunk out of these colleges is not necessary that their students are so good (of course most of them are). Rather in these colleges, gentleman’s C is acceptable, the school does not want to flunk out a Bush or Kerry.

  13. The first problem is that high schools aren’t teaching what they should (a problem that starts much earlier than HS), and everyone above about the 20th percentile is wasting much of their time in public schools. If the first 13 years of school were teaching to the average intelligence rather than to the slowest kid in the room, then high school graduates would understand not just reading and writing, but also as much math, computer operations, economics, science, history, etc., as most adults will ever need. However, as it is, in most states at present a HS diploma doesn’t even guarantee basic literacy, and people are going for 4-year degrees to get jobs that really don’t require much more than that.

    Murray is overemphasizing IQ, but otherwise he’s right: college should be only for intellectuals who want to spend their life learning, and for training professionals. 13 years of public school should be enough to teach the basics to anyone capable of learning them, and a few months of tech school plus an on-the-job training program should be enough for most jobs. However, it’s never been that way; even when public school standards were high, colleges were still full of kids with little intellectual curiosity and no goals other than to avoid flunking out while they partied on their parents’ money – because the college degree often served not as certification that they’d learned something, but merely as evidence that they came from the middle class.

  14. –Indeed, I bet many people of average intelligence can learn calculus, if taught properly (and if they’ve been taught prereqs properly).

    I’ll take that bet. you actually test the IQs of a proper statistical cohort of students. you build a grammar school and high school. you tell me who actually learns calculus.

    for the latter half of my bet: EVERY BLOODY DAY, we do this, and EVERY BLOODY DAY, we see that it fails to happen for a huge portion of the schools out there. Don’t tell me that all schools are like Baltimore or New Orleans. Look at the above average schools and figure out why even they can’t teach most students calculus.

    the fact is, since ed departments REFUSE to test IQ, no one ACTUALLY will take my bet. They just claim they are SURE it’s not true. Well, guys, put your pegagogy where your mouth is.

    But let’s get to the core issue: if we find that 5 hours a day of work in math leads the 95 IQ to understand calculus, was that the best use of 5 hours a day? What if it’s only 2 hours? or 6 hours? Is there a number at which you are willing to stake a claim to federal and state intervention? If not, why not?

    In education, like everything else, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There are tradeoffs. Start by figuring out what the metric looks like–how much time and effort necessary to teach child with X skills given Y capability. Then, you could actually decide where on the curve you want to be. Instead, educators act like education the most important thing in the world, but can’t even define how much of it improves skills by X amount. Then they talk about “multiple intelligences” as another way to avoid quantifying that metric. Fine–have multiple metrics. Quantify already.

  15. I suspect that my brother does a highly specialized job in Electric Engineering, so that would explain his 10%, but the commenter is right. Engineering school is part instruction and part litmus test, but is definately more relevent than most fields.

  16. bd – the armed forces don’t as a matter of fact “train people of any intelligence to perform complex tasks”. They use aptitude (aka IQ) tests in both recruiting and assignment. The armed forces may indeed be very good at efficiently training people with the native smarts to master those complex tasks, but they reject outright anybody who tests below a certain level. And I seriously doubt that truly “complex tasks” are performed by military personnel with subnormal IQs.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The edusphere is in an uproar over Charles Murray’s education series in the WSJ this week (his first article is here, and his second, here). Rory fisks him here and here, Joanne Jacobs here, and Ken here. And while I largely agree with his detractors (so I’m not going to be critiquing him here), Joanne Jacobs said something that needs to be addressed: Too many students go to four-year colleges without the intelligence to master college-level work or the motivation, writes Charles Murray in part 2 of his Opinion Journal series. Most would fare better learning job skills in a two-year college, he argues. This makes somewhat more sense than part 1 but I question his confidence that average people can’t benefit from higher education. [...]