Society and Culture, Education

Can’t We Be Just a Tiny Bit Hardheaded About What It Takes To Succeed in College?

Educational romantics are the Jean-Jacques Rousseaus of the education debate, possessing a naïve (in my view) faith in the plasticity of human cognitive abilities and an equally naïve credulousness when they read the extravagant claims that are made for this or that demonstration program. When I made these points in my book Real Education, I was intrigued to find that I attracted more criticism from the Right than the Left, with Jay Greene and Ben Wildavsky being prominent examples.

The latest entry is Marcus Winters over on the National Review website, who is upset that my “dangerous idea” that too many people are going to college has been gaining momentum, when, in Winters’s view, we should look upon the number of kids who should go to college as open-ended.

What Winters and the other educational romantics won’t do is confront the huge literature about the kind of linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities that are intrinsic to success in a genuine college curriculum. Those abilities are essentially the cognitive skills measured by IQ tests. As it happens, I just published an article entitled “Intelligence and College,” in the maiden issue of National Affairs,  that takes up the topic systematically. Here are some empirical points drawn from that article, and documented in more detail in Real Education that I don’t think qualify as “controversial” among people who are familiar with the literature on academic ability—IQ if you prefer—and success in college.

1. By adolescence, what you see is what you get in academic ability. There is still a lively empirical controversy about how much IQ can be changed by outside interventions in preschoolers, but not in high-schoolers. Among the best programs, you’re looking at improvements in the region of 0.2 standard deviations on an exit test, and those fade to triviality when retested two or three years later.

2. A common operational definition of “college readiness” in the literature is a 65 percent probability that a youngster will get a 2.7 grade point average in his freshman year—not a demanding standard in an age of grade inflation and soft courses. In a study based on 165,781 students at 41 major colleges, the combined SAT score that predicts a 65 percent chance of a 2.7 freshman GPA is 1180. It is a score that only about 9–12 percent of American 18-year-olds could get if all of them took the SAT.

3. Both the 1979 and 1997 cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), consistent with a half-century of collateral data, show that the mean IQ of whites who get a BA is 114–115, a range that demarcates the top 16–17 percent of the distribution. (The story about IQ and college experience among blacks raises a host of ancillary issues that I won’t try to deal with here.)

4. Both the 1979 and 1997 NLSY cohorts indicate that the 50-50 break point for successfully completing a BA among those who are self-selected to try to attend a four-year college is an IQ of 105, which cuts off the top 37 percent of the distribution.

5. We’re currently giving out BAs to about 35 percent of all 23-year-olds.

So what is the evidence that lots more kids could successfully complete college if we were to try harder? Don’t tell me about a miracle school where inner-city kids are doing just as well as suburban kids (as Winters does, about the Carl Icahn school in the Bronx), unless you’re prepared to give me interpretable data that, in reality, none of these miracle stories can offer. And don’t tell me that short-term increases of 0.2 standard deviations that fade out within a few years do the trick.

One last thought: If we really have the best interests of young people at heart, when do we start counting the costs—emotional, financial, and in opportunities—of a dropout rate from colleges that is in excess of 40 percent?

I don’t want to reduce the number of students who get more education after high school. I don’t want fewer students on college campuses. I just don’t want them to be stuck there for four years in the straitjacket of a program leading to a bachelor’s degree. The BA evolved in the 19th century for purposes that have nothing to do with the needs of today’s economy or today’s students. In fact (okay, so I’m not being dispassionate here), the BA has become the work of the devil.

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