College For the Few

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray, Crown Forum, 219 pages, $24.95

A quarter-century ago, a then-obscure social scientist named Charles Murray hit upon a surefire formula for creating a best-seller: 1) Pick a controversial topic like welfare (Losing Ground) or IQ (The Bell Curve). 2) Make an outrageous claim, adopting a tone of sweet reason and using (often misusing) elaborate social-science tools to impress the statistically unschooled. 3) Give those at the top of the heap license to believe they got there because of merit. 4) Await the brouhaha. 5) Watch the book climb to the top of the best-seller list.

In Real Education, Murray turns the spotlight on higher education. He's up to his familiar tricks: This time the provocation is that too many people go to college. Murray loves to make broad-brush, simple-sounding claims -- welfare causes dependency, intelligence is inherited -- and Real Education offers four of these "simple truths."

No one would argue against truth No. 1, the proposition that children have different abilities. What's important is how intelligence varies and what can be done to mitigate those differences. The influential 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, led many researchers to the dispiriting conclusion that what happens inside the schoolhouse doesn't affect achievement; the decisive influences are the wealth of a student's family and the wealth of his or her classmates' families. Murray treats these findings as gospel, but a lot has been learned about strategies that do affect educational outcomes. There's abundant evidence that high-quality pre-kindergarten dramatically narrows reading and math gaps -- indeed, that early education can change the arc of children's lives. Small classes during the first years of school, as well as instruction in a carefully evaluated, word-rich curriculum, also generate higher achievement. A good example of that kind of curriculum is Success for All, a school-wide program that focuses on the early detection and prevention of reading problems.

What's more, cognitive ability turns out to be quite malleable. Geneticists and neuroscientists have converged on the proposition that family income does matter but not as Equality of Educational Opportunity envisioned. Variations in ability among middle-class youngsters are mostly genetic -- their genetic potential has been "maxed out," says geneticist Eric Turkheimer. But the opposite holds true for poor children; differences among the families and communities in which they grow up explain almost everything.

Truth No. 2 -- that half the children are below average -- is a tautology unless you live in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, where every child is above average. But it's irrelevant to the policy issue: What varieties of education best suit this array of talent? Because Murray thinks that innate differences in cognitive ability guarantee that most people cannot do the intellectual heavy lifting that serious higher education demands, truth No. 3 -- too many children go to college -- inescapably follows. "No more than 20 percent" of students can do college-level work, says Murray, and "10 percent is a more reliable estimate."

Putting aside the faulty statistical analysis that leads Murray to that dour conclusion, this "truth" is rebutted by the fact that about 35 percent of young adults, not 10 percent, have a bachelor's degree. To Murray, these figures show that standards in higher education have been debased, but most undergraduates are learning something of value. University College London economist Pedro Carneiro concludes that "even if we take the most pessimistic estimates for the return to education for those outside the elite (who economists would call the marginal students), they are probably above 7 percent per year of college, and they are not lower for a year of a B.A. as opposed to a year of any other type of post-secondary schooling." Employers aren't dumb. If high school graduates were just as productive, companies would hire them and save boatloads of money.

To be sure, college isn't for everyone. That isn't a put-down, since not all good jobs require a college education. Workers in high-demand fields such as machinists and electricians earn a fine living. But colleges aren't filled with overmatched 20-year-olds who'd be better off in trade school. Carneiro's research shows that "individuals for whom a B.A. degree is truly a bad idea are just not enrolling in college anyway."

The real problem is precisely the reverse -- too few high school graduates are going to college. Enrollment has slid in recent years, and because education has been a powerful engine of growth, that spells trouble for the economy. The United States, which pioneered mass higher education, now ranks 10th in the world in college graduates.

As tuition skyrockets, students from poor families feel the pinch. Confronted with the necessity of earning a living, many cannot afford to invest in their futures, and admissions policies make things worse. At America's top universities just 10 percent of the students come from the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder -- only 3 percent come from the bottom quartile.

Astonishingly, a student whose family income is in the top quartile and whose aptitude is in the lowest quartile is as likely to go to college as a student whose family income is in the lowest quartile and whose aptitude is in the highest quartile. Simply put, "smart poor kids go to college at the same rate as stupid rich kids," observes Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council of Education. Since Murray is committed to educating the ablest, he should be railing against a system in which wealth trumps brainpower in determining who gets ahead.

The second half of Real Education is a call to reinvent how colleges and universities instruct the elite, because -- simple truth No. 4 -- "America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted." Murray has half a point: No one who spends time in a big state university comes away convinced that all is right there. But mass education doesn't have to be mediocre: Britain's Open University (OU), which accepts all comers, demonstrates that no institution needs to feed its students intellectual pabulum. OU courses are as rigorous as those at America's top colleges. In 2004 The Sunday [London] Times Universities Guide concluded that OU's teaching record was the fifth best in Britain -- better, even, than Oxford's. That's like U.S. News & World Report ranking the quality of teaching at, say, the University of Massachusetts higher than at Harvard.

The claim that higher education is properly the province of the elite isn't new. In 1944 Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, predicted that the GI Bill would turn universities into "educational hobo jungles." But such snobbery has largely vanished; the major and legitimate worry now is that millions of young Americans who could benefit from higher education can't afford it. Instead of leading the charge, Murray is years behind the times, and thankfully, his old formula isn't working. Unlike The Bell Curve, his new book is more likely to show up on the remainder tables than on the best-seller lists.

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