Murray: Three Reasons Colleges Are Oversubscribed

Brendan Nagle

At the October 10, 2011 meeting of the Washington D.C. chapter of NAS, well-known author Charles Murray spoke on why “Too Many People Are Going to College.”  The meeting was held at the home of A. Graham Down, president of the chapter.

Murray offered three reasons why he thinks colleges are oversubscribed.  First, the B.A. is a cost-free way for employers to screen potential employees.  Yet even in this task colleges fall down on the job.  Outside math and science majors a B.A. degree does not guarantee employers that students will actually know anything of substance about their major subjects.  Employers should do their own screening and demand that high schools properly prepare their graduates for the workplace.  Further, the emphasis on the B.A. comes at the price of diminishing the value of high school diplomas.  If anyone can win a B.A. then, presumably, there is no excuse for everyone not having a college degree.  Outside math and science degrees even an Ivy League B.A. tells us only that an individual student had high SAT scores but not that s/he has actually mastered a body of knowledge and has acquired basic skills of critical thinking, reading and writing.  A substitute for the traditional screening process provided by colleges would be to establish certification exams analogous to the exams that certify public accountants, thus obviating much unnecessary, expensive and time consuming class work.

Secondly, because the criterion of a college degree has been established as the basic norm for adult education, vast numbers of students are faced with the destructive result of having failed or not completed their supposed basic education.  It is obviously wrong to hold up as a measure of first class citizenship an achievement that only a small percentage of the population at large can actually achieve.  Failing to allow for different intelligences humiliatingly sets up masses of students to fail because they are forced by the standard B.A. curriculum to do something for which they may have neither the aptitude nor the interest.

Thirdly, colleges are in many ways outdated.  At one stage in history a college education required a physical plant where scholars could interact among themselves and with their students and where students could find the necessary resources for their studies such as libraries and labs.  Now, however, libraries are largely obsolete and classes, even graduate seminars, can be conducted online.  In many disciplines scholarship can be conducted in complete independence of the physical resources of a university.

In his concluding remarks Murray noted that colleges have failed in yet another one of the basic roles of traditional higher education, namely, that of providing a bridge between adolescence and adulthood.  Acting in loco parentis actually prolongs adolescence.

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