Do You Have Any Idea What an IQ of 110 Is Like?

Quick identity switch from man of the people to arrogant elitest snob. Let me go back to the statistic I introduced in my original article. The College Board defined “college readiness” as a 65 percent probability of getting a 2.7 freshman grade-point average or better, and then used freshman records from 41 major universities to determine the SAT score that predicted “college readiness” by that definition. The result was a score that only 10 percent of all 18-year-olds could get if all 18-year-olds took the SAT. Furthermore, these results are obtained in an era when a C effectively represents what used to be a failing grade.

Roughly 40 percent of all 18-year-olds enroll in a four-year college, and about two-thirds of those eventually get a BA, so obviously something interesting is going on, but let me focus on the question: Do these results really mean that 90 percent of kids can’t handle genuine college-level material?

Yes. More than that can get through, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re absorbing much of the material in real college courses. To make that point for majors in the sciences and engineering is easy, because it’s easy to prove that no more than 10 percent of the population can handle the math that those majors require. To make the same point about the social sciences and humanities, Real Education presents a set of passages from page 400 (chosen arbitrarily) from college texts. The vocabulary, syntax, and reasoning ability required to understand those passages is at a level that roughly corresponds to the “advanced” level of reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress–and only 5 percent of twelfth-graders reach the “advanced” benchmark.

Kevin, let’s go pick a set of 18-year-olds with measured IQs of 110 (25th percentile), give them the opening few chapters of the textbooks that I drew the passages from, and then engage them in conversation about what they understood from those chapters. And then try to tell me that they belong in any of the traditional college majors. It doesn’t mean they’re dumb. It doesn’t mean they can’t be successes in life. It just means that they don’t belong in the traditional college majors, which is a good reason to start thinking about better ways for them to get the post-high-school education they want, rather than sending them to institutions that were designed to provide the traditional college majors.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray draws from his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, to argue against America’s obsession with the four-year BA degree. Murray argues that the BA “wreaks harm on a majority of young people, is grotesquely inefficient as a source of information for employers, and is implicated in the emergence of a class-riven America.” Murray contends that vocational training and a new regime of certification testing would provide a superior alternative to a college degree for many high school grads.

Response Essays

  • Economist Pedro Carneiro of University College London — an authority on the relationship between education, human capital, and wages — agrees with much of Murray’s argument, but questions its relevance. Some people may be making a mistake in pursuing a BA, but it’s not a very big mistake, Carneiro says. “For most of those enrolling in college, a BA has a good expected return, but there is some risk,” and not notably more risk than with other investments. The real worry, Carneiro argues, is that stagnation in college enrollments “may cause problems for [economic] growth in the years to come.”

  • George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan agrees with Charles Murray’s claims that not everyone is suited to college, that four years is too long, and that few career-relevant skills are learned there. But then what explains the wage premium for college grads? Caplan notes that Murray flirts with a “signaling” model but argues he needs to take it more seriously. But then why haven’t certification test already caught on, Caplan wonders. Why don’t employers already cut out the college middle man and directly hire top high school grads? “An unfortunate implication of the signaling model is that cutting the BA down to size will be a lot harder than Murray thinks. As far as employers are concerned, the BA works.”

  • Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for Education Sector, argues that the “mass production of bachelor’s degrees” in the 20th century gave the United States one of the world’s best-educated labor forces, and all signs point to the stunning success of mass higher education. Carey says that Murray “does not come close” to showing that the “BA is the work of the devil.” If an alternative system of certification testing made sense, Carey argues, we would expect to see it already, but we don’t because “employers value the bachelor’s degree.” The flexibility of the American system, which allows students to get a good general education without committing to narrow vocational training, is one of its strengths. And so many drop out of college, Cary maintains, not because they are unprepared or unable to benefit, but because the academic environment and teaching are often discouragingly low. “The bachelor’s degree represents the best of American opportunity,” Carey writes. “We need to make it better, not tear it down.”