Here are some answers provided by Charles Murray, our favorite education curmudgeon, to the questions asked in the article.
Who should and shouldn't go to college?
Charles Murray: It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high-school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people.
[Gee... how would you empirically demonstrate this? You'd have to have some method for actually "measuring" cognitive ability. But surely that's not possible -- only in science fiction! Why, the things you could accomplish if that were possible...]
Economists have cited the economic benefits that individual students derive from college. Does that still apply?
Murray: A large wage premium for having a bachelor's degree still exists. For everything except degrees in engineering and the hard sciences, I submit that most of that premium is associated with the role of the B.A. as a job requirement instead of anything that students with B.A.'s actually learn. The solution to that injustice—and it is one of the most problematic social injustices in contemporary America—is to give students a way to show employers what they know, not where they learned it and how long it took them. In other words, substitute certifications for the bachelor's degree.
Who should pay for students to attend college?
Murray: Ideally, students themselves. If that means delaying college for a few years to save money, so much the better—every college professor has seen the difference in maturity and focus between kids straight out of high school and those who have worked or gone into the military for a few years. The ideal is unattainable. But somehow we've got to undermine the current system whereby upper-middle-class children go to college without having to invest in it.
I particularly like the comment below from an insightful (see, especially, his comments on calculus) UT Austin student (Plan II?).
Too many are attending and I agree full-heartedly with Mr. Murray that only 10% of college-aged individuals should be attending University.
I saw firsthand the results of this phenomenon deeply entrenched in the lecture halls of my particular University and was perplexed at the levels of incompetence and lack of passion towards subject material shown by many of my fellow students. I wondered if anyone else shared my particular insights and was relieved to find Mr. Murray and his supporters waiting for me with open arms, telling me, "you are not alone".
I don't doubt the value of a hard science or engineering education, the students who remain in those fields are for the most part, fairly smart, and whose work and learning will benefit our society. (Though there are too many unqualified individuals who think being a doctor is a cool and easy job where you make a lot of money with little work) Those students are quickly weeded out, as should be.
But in the less challenging fields such as most of the liberal arts, business, communications, I found the lack of intellectual spirit in my fellow students disturbing. The most common responses I encountered when asking about their choice of major and their reason for being at this particular school, their responses were as follows. Degree=Good Job. Football! (a valid point, as our team is the underdog this year in the BCS Championship game). Party=Drunk=Its COLLEGE!. Not one intellectually stimulated response about the faculty and resources offered by one of the top research universities in the nation. They had no passion for their subjects, they waltzed into class with glazed eyes, and danced out with a degree. Most have never checked out a book from the library. Spark-notes are their best friend.
I was stifled by the inadequate writing ability of many of my peers when I reviewed and edited their papers. Some of them could not even write at a middle school level, much less a college level. At a top 50 University, nonetheless. I can't even begin imagine how it is at lesser schools.
An unfortunate trend at my University is that a great majority of students will choose their classes simply based on the "logic" of pick-a-prof and grade distributions. The most popular ones are the ones that give lots of A's. Few are actually interested in the topic of choice, and the unlucky ones get dropped into hard classes they don't want, skulking, sleeping, or skipping class entirely stifling the learning environment of people who are actually there to learn. Its also sad for Professors as well, because the truly excellent ones are browbeaten and criticized for their inability to gift A's onto undeserving students.
Grade inflation is through the roof here. I went to a challenging prep school where my best writings and most carefully thought out essays would usually only earn me high B's, with the occasional A. I thought University would be a challenge, but to my dismay, it has been anything but. I realized it when I quickly spat out some honestly dreadful essays for Philosophy and English Literature because I was in a rush, only to be rewarded with a sparkling 100 and rave comments. Really? Easy A's. Though according to most of my fellow students, these classes were incredibly difficult, the TA and professor were unfair graders, gave out too much reading, etc. Horrifying.
In Mathematics and Quantitative sciences it is the same story, though even our "honors students" seem ill prepared to handle the rigors of college level mathematics. Calculus is dumbed down so that the regular student can succeed. But even then, its still widely failed class even in its simplified state But that bodes ill, many people can "do" calculus, but few can understand its implications and applications. I can "do calculus" in the terms that I can memorize the concepts, complete practice problems, and repeat the ordeal on the test. But I can only apply its implications to the simplest of physical and economic problems. I'm not good enough to really UNDERSTAND calculus. I know that. But my ability to "do" calculus earns me an A+ at this University. And it really should not.
Too many kids are at college wasting their time. They are not happy with their studies, not happy with the debt they are piling on their heads to attend, but happy with the football team, and the plans for the weekend. They are here for the wrong reasons.
In physics 101 last quarter I gave A's or B's to almost 60 percent of the class, which I regarded as very lenient grading. (I guess if this were Brown or Stanford I could have given all A's with just a few punitive B's for the laggards at the bottom ;-) But nevertheless I had to field dozens of emails from aggrieved students complaining about their "low" grades! It makes me wonder whether everyone else (i.e., other professors, high school teachers, etc.) is engaged in grade inflation? It's certainly the easy way out -- I'm sure you get higher student evaluations if you tip off during the term that you're an easy grader. Who is holding the line?