I remember back in the 1400’s when I went to high school.  Heady days.  School counselors weren’t in the least afraid to suggest that some students might be better served by avoiding college.  In fact, the commonly held belief was that most people would not attend college, opting instead for one of the skilled trades, trade school, or simply getting out into the workforce and discovering reality.  In fact, I recall some students actually being told—gasp!—that they simply didn’t have what it took to succeed in college.

Am I making a simplistic, “good old days” argument?  Not quite.  As one currently fighting in the education trenches, I have discovered certain realities, realities that my counselors back in the 1400’s also discovered: some people—probably most—simply don’t have the IQ or the dedication necessary to do real college level work.  They—and I—are in good company in this much-abused belief.

 What?!  Some people aren’t as smart as others?!  Yes, and if you haven’t learned this fundamental lesson about human nature, I fear for your continuing existence.  We do not, for a moment, doubt that not everyone is capable of playing on the varsity football or basketball team, yet we have this odd conceit that resists recognizing intellectual differences despite the fact that we have to do it every day merely to survive.

Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is a prolific writer on educational issues.  One of his most interesting works (PDF available here), written in 2009, is entitled Intelligence and Education.  Murray referred, for example, to a survey that found 90% of high school students were encouraged to attend college by their counselors.  It is not surprising, therefore, to discover:

For 40 years, American leaders have been unwilling to discuss the underlying differences in academic ability that children bring to the classroom. Over the same period, federal policy, backed by billions of taxpayer dollars in loans and grants, has aggressively encouraged more and more students to try to obtain a college education. As a result, about half of all high-school graduates now enroll in four-year colleges, despite the ample evidence that just a small minority of American students — about 10-15% — have the academic ability to do well in college.

Using his own research and that of others, Murray came to an interesting conclusion about what is necessary for genuine success in college: an IQ of at least 115.

There is no inconsistency between Kobrin’s results and a 115 mean IQ among white college graduates. The students who make salient points in classroom discussions, who write well-researched term papers, and whose final exams demonstrate that they understood the material are

usually well into the upper half of the distribution of academic ability among those who go to college. In other words, they are somewhere in the top 15% of the population — and usually in the top 10%.

I recommend, gentle readers, that you take the time to read Murray’s article.  It is one of the most intelligent, well-reasoned pieces on the topic I’ve yet seen, in large part because it employs equal doses of common sense, logic, competent research, and insight into human nature.

Allow me please to make–in the spirit of Swift–a few modest suggestions:

(1) Most people don’t need to go to college.

(2) Most people can’t afford to go to college.

(3) Most people can’t actually do genuine college-level work.

(4) Trying to send everyone to college is harmful to secondary education.

(5) Trying to send everyone to college is harmful to higher education.

Since taking office, President Obama has made no secret of his desire to send virtually everyone to college on the public dime.  Even after the passage of ObamaCare, most Americans are unaware that one of the things we had to pass that law to discover (as Nancy Pelosi so arrogantly and idiotically put it) is that the law federalized the entire student loan industry.  The entire industry.  Under Obamacare all student loans are underwritten, administered, processed and enforced by the government—the taxpayers.  But surely Mr. Obama will take pains to ensure the fiscal integrity of the entire student loan structure?  Not quite:

Kevin Glass at the American Spectator reports on Mr. Obama’s executive order to undermine the entire house of cards:

The accelerated “pay as you earn” program, which Obama will authorize through executive order, could benefit up to 1.6 million borrowers and reduce their payments by as much as a couple hundred dollars a month, administration officials said. All remaining debt on the federal loans would be forgiven after 20 years — five years earlier than under current law.

Glass provided some sobering statistics:

* College cost inflation is around 6.5 percent/year for the past 50 years.

* Starting salaries of college graduates have been stagnant and even fallen in the last decade.

* Debt per student at graduation has risen from around $9,000 in 1993 to over $27,000 in 2011.

Glass quotes Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation:

 [E]conomist Richard Vedder calls the idea of student loan forgiveness “the second-worst idea ever—the worst was the creation of federally subsidized student loans in the first place.”… [i]ncreases in federal subsidies or student loan bailouts shift the burden of paying for college from the student—the person directly benefiting from college—to the millions of Americans who did not graduate from college.

Much has been written about the Higher Education Bubble (Google the term if it’s unfamiliar), which is simply the theory that college prices are about to rise beyond the point of sustainability, and in fact, probably already have.  In effect, college costs too much for the benefits it provides.  It remains true—at least statistically and for the moment—that those who possess a bachelor’s degree will earn more in a lifetime than those who do not, but practically, that statistic lost its gloss and practical meaning years ago.  Mr. Obama’s seizure of the student loan industry has had a predictable result: it has increased tuition as colleges hope to see increased enrollment.

But isn’t this an expression of the free market?  People providing a service the public wants?  Not quite.  In this case, most of the colleges are publically supported institutions—the Obamites are overtly hostile to private technical schools and colleges—and most are serving their students poorly indeed.  Particularly in the current economy, college enrollment can do nothing but dramatically decline, unless of course the taxpayers are essentially paying people to go to college with money it doesn’t have in the first place.  This is not a recipe for economic solvency, for the individual or America.

(1) Most people don’t need to go to college.  Despite the suggestions of some that our society has advanced beyond the necessity of manual labor, reality tends to intrude.  There are still hundreds of absolutely necessary skilled trades that do not in any way require a college education yet provide a high standard of living doing useful, valuable and satisfying work.  One would need to sit in on my classes for only a day—likely less—to understand that most people not only aren’t cut out for the academic life, they have no interest in it.

Understand clearly that I believe that everyone should further their education beyond high school in at least some way.  Nothing stands in their way.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans have, as adults, traditionally taken classes in community colleges—and now, online—as they pursue their jobs and careers, in some cases because they remembered the joy of learning their high school English teacher helped them find, and in others, because a degree has become a necessary step on their career ladder.  This system—self-selected, self-motivated, self-initiated—has worked well for centuries.  The current, recent move to send everyone to college is a utopian solution to a non-existent problem.

(2) Most people can’t afford to go to college.  I’m almost embarrassed to expand this idea, but in the spirit of discussion… College is becoming, by any measure, more and more expensive, and its rewards have dramatically diminished.  At the same time, it is taking people longer and longer to finish a degree.  Bachelor’s programs that traditionally were completed in four years now routinely take as long as seven, greatly running up the final debt tally.

“But Mr. Obama is going to forgive my loans!”  Right.  And when Mr. Obama leaves office and adults once again take over (let us pray), that particular executive order will be rescinded as quickly as pen can be applied to paper.  And if Mr. Obama wins four more years and bankrupts the nation, or if our federal politicians under any president prove unequal to the task of reestablishing a functioning economy, attending college for any reason will suddenly be at the bottom of most people’s daily survival lists.

Murray puts the issue in perspective:

About 17 out of every 20 white high school seniors at the 90th percentile of academic ability enter a four-year college hoping to get a B.A. Twenty percent of them can be expected to fail. About two out of three white high-school seniors at the 75th percentile of academic ability enter a four-year college hoping to get a B.A. Forty percent of them can be expected to fail. About half of white high- school seniors at the 60th percentile of academic ability enter a four-year college hoping to get a B.A. Fifty-two percent of them can be expected to fail. About two out of five white high-school seniors at the 50th percentile of academic ability enter a four-year college hoping to get a B.A. Sixty percent of them can be expected to fail.

The truth is that an enormous number of those who undertake expensive college loans will never graduate from college.  A substantial number of them will default on those loans.  Guess whose pockets will now be picked and whose legs will be broken, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, to make up the difference?

(3) Most people can’t actually do genuine college-level work. Here is where we get into the issues that concern me most.  Virtually every college now has a remedial high school curriculum—a school within a school–designed to prepare graduating high school seniors to passfFreshman level courses—courses past generations of college students were assumed to be capable of passing without help.  Some pundits and many college professors and administrators point at the public schools, hyperventilating about the poor quality of students enrolling in their institutions of higher learning.  Nonsense.

Back in the 1400’s, students had to actually apply to virtually any college, and those whose academic record wasn’t up to speed weren’t accepted.  That’s right.  Some people weren’t accepted in college, even state schools!  To self-esteem believers, this might seem cruel, but it was quite the opposite.  What measure of kindness is extended to a student everyone knows is so woefully incapable of genuine college work that their first semester, even their first few years of “college” work will consist of nothing but retaking the high school level courses they barely passed in the first place—while paying full college tuition for those classes, of course?  How do we pat ourselves on the back for our kindness when we know that a huge number of those kids will drop out of school far short of a degree only after incurring substantial debt they’ll be even less prepared to pay back for having missed those months or years building the habits and experiences that have the potential to make them gainfully employable?  What will be the state of their self-esteem then?

My students are amazed to learn that I took my undergraduate degree in 2.5 years with a 3.89 GPA.  I did this because I was absolutely focused, willing to take up to 22 hours per semester, and full loads every summer and interim session, and had the intellectual ability and determination necessary to do it.  I also did it at a time when colleges weren’t in the business of loading as many bodies—regardless of their qualifications or abilities—into the college machine.  I did it taking no remedial courses at all, taking genuinely college level work.

Well good for me!  What’s the point?  How many college students do you imagine do what I accomplished?  Three percent?  Two?  The simple reality of human nature is that most people are, in most ways, average, and as Murray suggests, about 10%– the top 10%–are capable of true success in college.

I am certainly not advocating keeping those who are not in the top 10% from attending college.  I know many people who, through hard work and dogged determination, struggled through a degree.  Bless them.  I have no doubt they’ll succeed in life.  They surely learned more and became better people for their efforts than the legions of more academically talented who majored in waking up in unfamiliar places in pools of their own—and other’s—vomit.  The point is always that when we ignore human nature, we pay a price, sometimes on a societal scale.

(4) Trying to send everyone to college is harmful to secondary education.  Many states, including my own, are caught up in one of the latest educational fads: College Readiness.  It goes by a variety of names, but they’re all the same, one-size-fits-all approach to life, which assumes that everyone should attend college.  Many states are mandating curricular standards—even specific curriculums—that must be imposed on every high school student, regardless of their desires, goals and abilities.

Regular readers know that one of my most serious concerns about education is the losing battle to preserve class time so that I can actually teach my students.  In that battle, the odds are very much against me, and I find that I have less and less time every year to teach far more material, material demanded by federal and state educrats, much of which is focused entirely on passing the tests they also mandate.  Adding another mandate, particularly one so blatantly foolish on its face—the idea that everyone should attend college—only takes more precious time from real learning.

One thing is certain: the student who doesn’t much care for high school is going to be even less impressed with attempts to interest him in college.  Even as teenagers, many kids are more than smart enough to know that college isn’t for them, at least not right out of high school.  Good for them.  Why don’t their self-appointed intellectual superiors know that?

I do encourage kids to continue their educations.  I tell them, repeatedly, that education is a life long process, and I tell them of the many opportunities they have to further their educations, college being only one.  Only an arrogant fool looks down on those who can’t display a bachelor’s degree on their wall.  How many college educated idiots do you know?

(5) Trying to send everyone to college is harmful to higher education. If college really is “higher education,” how can turning a year or more of a bachelor’s program into a remedial high school be justified, intellectually or financially?  For the moment, a bachelor’s degree remains an entry requirement to at least some jobs.  However, if employers can no longer count on a bachelor’s to tell them anything meaningful, why not hire a non-degreed veteran with real work experience, someone they know is reliable, will show up to work on time, and knows how to accomplish a mission, or a graduate of a specific technical school over someone with a bachelor’s degree that can be relied upon to mean only that its holder spent from 4-7 years taking a great many remedial classes?

I’d prefer not to get into degrees earned in various “studies,” but this coming semester, Columbia University is offering an Occupy Wall Street class.  Part of the course–and you saw this coming, didn’t you?–requires students to do “field work” by actually joining OWS-type protests.  No doubt, even remedial college students can participate in the kind of complex, socio-political sleeping, drumming, defecating, urinating, crime and similar hi-jinks of such gatherings.  Talk about fitting the curriculum to the student…

By admitting virtually anyone, by diluting the quality of their product, colleges are devaluing that product, and in the real free market, this inevitably means lower attendance—much lower.

I would argue that those who knowingly accept students manifestly incapable of college level work, who send them back to high school while charging them college tuition for classes they should have mastered on their first opportunity, have no standing to complain that their students are incapable of college level work.

Such “colleges” are about something other than higher education,  aren’t they?