Why Are So Many “College-Unready” Students Doing So Well in College?

Charles, in your book you identify 1180 as the combined SAT score cutoff for college readiness, based on the study you cite. U.S. News & World Report reports the 25th and 75th percentile combined SAT scores for colleges and universities in its annual rankings. Here’s a list of colleges and universities ranked as “Tier One” institutions by U.S. News that reported a 25th percentile SAT score equal to or lower than 1180:

University of California-Los Angeles

University of California-San Diego

University of Washington

University of California-Davis

University of California-Irvine

University of California-Santa Barbara

Penn State University

University of Texas-Austin

University of Florida

Yeshiva University

Smith College

United States Naval Academy

United States Military Academy

Lafayette College

Furman University

University of the South

Union College

Skidmore College

DePauw University

Pitzer College

Rhodes College

And of course there are a number of other top-ranked colleges with 25th percentile scores fairly close to 1180, which means that some significant percentage of students, perhaps as many as one in five, are enrolling despite scores that you think disqualify them from pursuing a legitimate college degree. And yet, they’re getting degrees. We know this because the graduation rate at nearly every one of the institutions listed above is greater than 75%, and the population of non-graduates surely includes both students who transferred elsewhere to graduate and students with SATs above 1180.

The point being, every year many students enroll in highly regarded colleges and succeed there despite not meeting your alleged minimum cognitive cutoff. And this doesn’t even take into account all of the very solid institutions in the lower tiers and the sub-1180 students who succeed there as well. Unless I’m misreading your proposal, you essentially want to radically shrink the population of traditional college-goers as a means of saving people who aren’t college material the trouble of attending. I submit that there is no sorting process even close to accurate enough to pull that off without denying college to large numbers of students who are perfectly capable of earning a bachelor’s degree. I’ll repeat my example of Eureka College (where only one-fourth of students enroll with the ACT equivalent of an 1180) and the 40th President of the United States. Often, people don’t find out if college is for them until they get there.

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.”