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College crush

Books | Charles Murray says America has an irrational love for the Bachelor of Arts degree, and he offers a way to get over it

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Charles Murray has done it again. Murray is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., but he is best known for books that are scholarly yet readable and provocative: Losing Ground, which eviscerated the American welfare system; The Bell Curve, co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein, which analyzed the role of IQ in American society; and now Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), which offers conventional U.S. educators a dose of reality.

Q: Why this book?

The definition of educational success in this country is, you've got to get a B.A. That is drummed into kids from the time they're young. Let's face it: If you don't have a B.A. at this point in this country you are in some sense a second-class citizen. That's the driving force behind a lot of kids struggling to get B.A.s, to achieve this status. Also, they read all the econometrics studies that say that the average B.A. makes x dollars more. So the book is in some sense a crusade to destroy the B.A. as a measure of educational success.

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Q: The statistics that say, "Get a B.A., get a million dollars more," don't take into account individual attributes and talents . . .

That's an average. Suppose that you have enough intellectual ability to get through a college today and get a B.A., and you want to be a business executive. But suppose you have very average interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, and not great intellectual ability. You can't look at the average for business executives, because in the things that make great business executives you're going to be competing against people who are a lot stronger than you are, in terms of charm, perseverance, intelligence, and everything else.

Q: The better alternative is . . .

Look at the lower end of business people salaries, and suppose you have it in you to be a great electrician. You're plenty smart enough, plus you've got great small motor skills, you've got great visual-spatial skills, you could be a terrific technician. You look at the top of the scale for electrician salaries, and guess what-top electricians make a lot of money, on the order of 90 grand a year average for the top 10 percent. And that's a reasonable aspiration for you. So the average premium for the college degree is extremely misleading.

Q: But there's been a move back to craftsmanship, at least in theory-to be a carpenter or a furniture maker. Is that catching on?

Being a fine cabinetmaker is a cool thing to do in some circles, but that's not what we tell high-school kids. This figure came out of a major survey: 90 percent of high-school students are told by their high-school counselors that they ought to go to college. When I've interviewed these counselors, sometimes they say, "If we tell kids they're not suited for college, we get angry reactions from parents, who desperately want their kids to go to college, and from the kids themselves, who don't want to hear that." The counselors are telling people what they want to hear, and that goes back to the question of, why is it that we have this terrible reluctance to tell a child, "Find some things that you really like to do, and we will teach you to do those things really, really well. If you want to learn philosophy, we'll teach you philosophy. If it's cabinetmaking, we'll teach you cabinetmaking. If what you want to do is be a first-rate long-haul truck driver, we will help you become a first-rate long-haul truck driver."

Q: Any chance that your anti-B.A. crusade will succeed?

Employers mostly use the B.A., if they're interviewing social science and humanities graduates, as a screen for IQ and for perseverance. But as more and more people go to college, as college gets more and more dumbed down, as it gets harder and harder to interpret grades because of grade inflation, the B.A. is a noisier and noisier signal, and employers know it. They still use it because so many people are going to college that they aren't screening out too much talent if they require a B.A., but they know it's a bad signal. So that's important. Then you've got students who say, "This is really expensive, and do I really have to do this?"

Q: How does the online education industry fit into this potential change?

It's growing in sophistication-with podcasts and all sorts of interactions with professors. But the online industry understands that even though they grant B.A.s, they know their B.A. can't relate to a Ph.D. with the prestige of a brick-and-mortar institution. They would love to have some other way. So you have all these people who would benefit. Here's the solution-and I actually for once have a solution that is feasible: certification. The model is the CPA [Certified Public Accountant] exam. Fourteen hours long, I think four different segments; it's an extremely thorough exam, and if you get a high score on that, every employer of accountants knows that this kid knows a lot of accounting.

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