Too many people are going to college

The following is mainly
(there are also some related articles at the end)
an excerpt from Chapter 3 of
Real Education:
Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality

(2008) by Charles Murray.
It could have been included in my dedicated post concerning that book,
but because of the interest specifically in the subject of this chapter,
I have broken it out into a post of its own, for ease of (possible) reference.

Practically all of the emphasis is added.

Chapter 3
Too Many People Are Going to College

In the fall of 2005,
more than 1.5 million students
enrolled in America’s four-year colleges or universities,
a number equal to 50 percent of high school graduates that year.
Almost all high school graduates need additional education.
But a lot fewer than 1.5 million
should be going to a four-year residential institution
and trying to get a BA.
One of the most damaging messages of educational romanticism
has been that
everyone should go to college.

This chapter discusses five topics.

The first is a nuts-and-bolts issue:
How smart do you have to be
to cope with genuine college-level material.?

No more than 20 percent of students
have that level of academic ability
and 10 percent is a more realistic estimate.

The second topic is
college’s role in providing a liberal education.
For all but a minority of students,
that job should be done elementary and secondary school.

Next I turn to
the ways in which colleges are becoming obsolete.
Four years of residence on a college campus
is seldom the best way to acquire the knowledge
that most students want to acquire.

The fourth topic is labeled
“College isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
I make that case in terms of income, job satisfaction, and maturation.

Finally, I turn to
the divisive role that the college degree is acquiring in American society.
By making a college degree something that everyone is supposed to want,
we are punishing the majority of young people who do not get one.

Section 3.4
College Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

College looms so large in the thinking of both parents and students
because it is seen as the open sesame to a good job [§3.4.1].
It has also become commonly accepted that four years on a college campus
is a desirable way for young people
to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood [§§3.4.2-3].
On examination, neither reason is as persuasive as it first appears.

Section 3.4.1
The Wage Premium of the BA
When high-school graduates think that obtaining a BA
will help them get a higher-paying job,
they are only narrowly correct.
Economists have established beyond doubt that
people with BAs earn more on average than people without them.
But why does the BA produce that result?
For whom does the BA produce that result?

For some jobs, the economic premium for a degree is produced by
the actual education that has gone into getting the degree.
Lawyers, physicians, and engineers can earn their high incomes
only by deploying knowledge and skills that take years to acquire,
and degrees in law, medicine, and engineering still signify
competence in those knowledges and skills.
But for many other jobs, the economic premium for the BA is created by
a brutal fact of life about the American job market.
Employers do not even interview applicants who do not hold a BA.
Even more brutal, the advantage conferred by the BA
often has nothing to do with content of the education.
Employers do not value what the student learned,
just that the student has a degree.

Employers value the BA because it is
a no-cost (for them) screening device for academic ability and perseverance.
The more people who go to college,
the more sense it makes for employers to require a BA.
When only a small percentage of people got college degrees,
employers who required a BA would have been shutting themselves off
from access to most of the talent.
With more than a third of twenty-three-year-olds now getting a BA,
many employers can reasonably limit their hiring pool to college graduates
because bright and ambitious high-school graduates who can go to college
usually do go to college.
An employer can believe that exceptions exist but rationally choose
not to expend time and money to identify them.
Knowing this, large numbers of students are in college
to buy their admission ticket—the BA.

But while it is true that
the average person with a BA makes more than
the average person without a BA,
getting a BA is still going to be the wrong economic decision
for many high-school graduates.
Wages within occupations form a distribution.
Young people with okay-but-not-great academic ability
who are thinking about whether to go after a BA
need to consider the completion they will face after they graduate.
Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example,
a young man who has just graduated from high school
and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician
or go to college and major in business,
hoping to become a white-collar manager.
He is at the 70th percentile in linguistic ability and logical-mathematical ability—
someone who shouldn’t go to college by my standards
[see §3.1; Murray offers an argument that only the top 10 percent
can really hack college as it used to be defined]
but who can, in today’s world, easily find a college that will give him a degree.
He is exactly average in interpersonal and intra personal ability.
He is at the 95th percentile in the small-motor skills and spatial abilities
that are helpful in being a good electrician.

He begins by looking up the average income of electricians and managers
on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, and finds that
the mean annual income for electricians in 2005 was $45,630,
only about half of the $88,450 mean for management occupations.
It looks as if getting a BA will buy him a huge wage premium.
Should he try to get the BA on economic grounds?

To make his decision correctly,
our young man must start by throwing out the averages.
He has the ability to become an excellent electrician
and can reasonably expect to be near the top
of the electricians’ income distribution.
He does not have it in him to be an excellent manager,
because he is only average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability
and only modestly above average in academic ability,
all of which are important for becoming a good manager,
while his competitors for those slots will include
many who are high in all of those abilities.
he should be looking at the incomes
toward the bottom of the distribution of managers.
With that in mind,
he goes back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website
and discovers that
an electrician in the 90th percentile of electricians’ incomes made $70,480 in 2005,
almost twice the income of a manager at the 10th percentile of managers’ incomes ($37,800).
Even if our young man successfully completes college and gets a BA
(which is far from certain),
he is likely to make less money than if he becomes an electrician.

Then there is job security to consider.
A good way to make sure you always can find work
is to be among the best at what you do.
It also helps to have a job
that does not require you to compete with people around the globe.
When corporations downsize,
they lay off mediocre managers before they lay off top electricians.
When the economy gets soft,
top electricians can find work when mediocre managers cannot.
Low-level management jobs can often be out-sourced to India,
whereas electricians’ jobs cannot.

What I have said of electricians is true throughout the American job market.
The income for the top people
in a wide variety of occupations that do not require a college degree
is higher than
the average income for many occupations that require a BA.
Furthermore, the range and number of such jobs is expanding rapidly.
The need for assembly-line workers in factories
(one of the most boring jobs ever invented)
is falling,
but the demand for skilled technicians of every kind—
in health care, information technology, transportation networks,
and every industry that relies on high-tech equipment—
is expanding.
The service sector includes many low-skill, low-paying jobs,
but it also includes growing number of specialized jobs that pay well
(for example, in health care and the entertainment and leisure industries).
Construction offers an array of high-paying jobs
for people who are good at what they do.
It’s not just skilled labor in the standard construction trades
that is in high demand.
The increase in wealth in American society
has increased the demand for all sorts of craftsmanship.
Today’s high-end homes and office buildings
may entail the work of specialized skills
in stonework, masonry, glazing, painting, cabinetmaking, machining,
landscaping, and a dozen other crafts.

In today’s America, finding a first-rate lawyer or physician is easy.
Finding first-rate skilled labor is hard.

[Given the usual claim that both wages and prices are set by supply and demand,
if this is true it would seem that
the "hard-to-find" labor category should demand a higher remuneration
than the one easier to find.]

Section 3.5
The Dark Side of the BA as a Norm


However unintentionally,
we have made something that is still inaccessible
to a majority of the population—
the BA—
into a symbol of first-class citizenship.
We have done so at the same time that other class divisions
are becoming more powerful.
Today’s college system is implicated in
the emergence of class-riven America.

The problem begins with the message sent to young people that
they should aspire to college no matter what.
Some politicians are among the most visible offenders,
treating every failure to go to college as an injustice
that can be remedied by increasing government help.
American educational administrators reinforce the message
by instructing guidance counselors to steer as many students as possible
toward a college-prep track
(more than 90 percent of high-school students report that
their guidance counselors encouraged them to go to college).
But politicians and educators are only following the lead of the larger culture.
As long as it remains taboo to acknowledge that
college is intellectually to demanding for most young people,
we will continue to create crazily unrealistic expectations
among the next generation.
If “crazily unrealistic” sounds too strong,
consider that more than 90 percent of high school seniors
expect to go to college,
and more than 70 percent of them
expect to work in professional jobs.

One aspect of this phenomenon has been labeled
misaligned ambitions,
Meaning that adolescents have career ambitions
that are inconsistent with their educational plans.
Data from the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development conducted during the 1990s
indicate that misaligned ambitions characterized
more than half of all adolescents.
Almost always, the misalignment is in the optimistic direction,
as adolescents aspire to be attorneys or physicians
without understanding the educational hurdles they must surmount
to achieve their goals.
They end up at a four-year institution
not because that is where they can take
the courses they need to meet their career goals,
but because college is the place where BAs are handed out,
and everyone knows that these days you’ve got to have a BA.
Many of them drop out.
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.


Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education
and you were made a member of a task force
assigned to create one from scratch.
Ask yourself what you would think
if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal:
First, we will set up a common goal for every young person
that represents educational success.
We will call it a B.A.
We will then make it difficult or impossible
for most people to achieve this goal.
We will lure large numbers of people
who do not possess adequate ability or motivation
to try to achieve the goal and then fail.
We will stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it.

What I have just described is the system that we have in place.
There must be a better way.

Miscellaneous Articles


It’s time to drop the college-for-all crusade
By Robert J. Samuelson
Washington Post, 2012-05-28

The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness.
Time to ditch it.
Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners,
it’s now doing more harm than good.
It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II,

even though higher education’s expansion also ranks as
one of America’s great postwar triumphs.

Consider. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. Going to college was “a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent” high-school graduates, wrote Diane Ravitch in her history of U.S. education, “The Troubled Crusade.” No more. At last count, roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree: about 30 percent a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution; the rest associate degrees from community colleges.

Starting with the GI Bill in 1944, governments at all levels promoted college. From 1947 to 1980, enrollments jumped from 2.3 million to 12.1 million. In the 1940s, private colleges and universities accounted for about half. By the 1980s, state schools — offering heavily subsidized tuitions — represented nearly four-fifths. Aside from a democratic impulse, the surge reflected “the shift in the occupational structure to professional, technical, clerical and managerial work,” noted Ravitch. The economy demanded higher skills; college led to better-paying jobs.

College became the ticket to the middle class, the be-all-and-end-all of K-12 education. If you didn’t go to college, you’d failed. Improving “access” — having more students go to college — drove public policy.

We overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired.

For starters, we’ve dumbed down college. The easiest way to enroll and retain more students is to lower requirements. Even so, dropout rates are high; at four-year schools, fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Many others aren’t learning much.

In a recent book, “Academically Adrift,” sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that 45 percent of college students hadn’t significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent. Their study was based on a test taken by 2,400 students at 24 schools requiring them to synthesize and evaluate a block of facts. The authors blame the poor results on lax academic standards. Surveyed, one-third of the same students said that they studied alone five or fewer hours a week; half said they had no course the prior semester requiring 20 pages of writing.

Still, most of these students finished college, though many are debt-ridden. Persistence counts. The larger — and overlooked — consequence of the college obsession is to undermine high schools. The primacy of the college-prep track marginalizes millions of students for whom it’s disconnected from “real life” and unrelated to their needs. School bores and bothers them. Teaching them is hard, because they’re not motivated. But they also make teaching the rest harder. Their disaffection and periodic disruptions drain teachers’ time and energy. The climate for learning is poisoned.

That’s why college-for-all has been a major blunder. One size doesn’t fit all, as sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University has argued. The need is to motivate the unmotivated. One way is to forge closer ties between high school and jobs. Yet, vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged. Apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training — programs successful in Europe — are sparse. In 2008, about 480,000 workers were apprentices, or 0.3 percent of the U.S. labor force, reports economist Robert Lerman of American University. Though not for everyone, more apprenticeships could help some students.

The rap against employment-oriented schooling is that it traps the poor and minorities in low-paying, dead-end jobs. Actually, an unrealistic expectation of college often traps them into low-paying, dead-end jobs — or no job. Learning styles differ. “Apprenticeship in other countries does a better job of engaging students,” says Lerman. “We want to diversify the routes to rewarding careers.” Downplaying these programs denies some students the pride and self-confidence of mastering difficult technical skills, while also fostering labor shortages.

There’s much worrying these days that some countries (examples: South Korea, Norway, Japan) have higher college­attendance rates, including post-secondary school technical training, than we do. This anxiety is misplaced. Most jobs — 69 percent in 2010, estimates the Labor Department — don’t require a post-high-school degree. They’re truck drivers, store clerks, some technicians. On paper, we’re turning out enough college graduates to meet our needs.

The real concern is the quality of graduates at all levels. The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills. It cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree — not the skills and knowledge behind it — matters. We need to rethink.