Too Many People are Going to College

In his latest book, Real Education, Charles Murray writes, “too many people are going to college.” Murray, whose earlier books Losing Ground and The Bell Curve made him a darling of the right and an enemy of the left, is not afraid to say what others do not. Whether it is political correctness or the fear of losing their jobs, faculty and administrators in higher education cannot bring themselves to utter such blasphemy, at least in public.

His focus is on the 35% students completing liberal arts degrees. He argues that about 10% of the students should be going to liberal arts programs because only about that number are interested and capable of getting a “real” liberal arts education. By admitting so many incapable and uninterested students into traditional four-year programs, he argues that we are dumbing down the educational experience. On the one hand, we fail to prepare the elite to run the country and, on the other hand, we deprive those who don’t belong there of an education that will pay off.

The 10% sounds about right to me if we define the B.A. as Murray does, the old fashion academic study of what was offered (not really studied) a hundred years ago. From my experience, most students cannot master even the fundamentals of what professional scholars do in their disciplines. This is not a recent phenomenon. When I did my Bachelors at Johns Hopkins in the late 1950’s, the majority of those students couldn’t even handle the Federalist Papers. In fact, if you read histories of higher education since antiquity, the vast majority of students in college were never in engaged in the life of the mind.

Murray maintains there is a place for almost all students in some kind of post-secondary education. He favors technical programs of shorter duration, but I would suggest long-term programs that give students time to grow up and to develop the skills and character employers want. These programs would place students in internships and off-campus experiences for as much as 50% the cost of a four-year program. It would not require of them 120 credits of traditional, and often unnecessary, academic coursework.

If we accept Murray’s analysis that too many people are in traditional college programs, we would have to face a more shocking and destructive idea— there are way too many liberal arts faculty in higher education today.