William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The more educated there are, the less education there is: Part I

College? While surveying my number two son’s final exam in meteorology (a class in which the answers are given out beforehand—in multiple choice format, of course), I recalled the old argument on why college attendance should be limited to only a few.

What follow is an obvious line of reasoning which shows that either college should be set aside only for those most able to meet its rigors, or “college” itself will have to be redefined.

Suppose (what is true) that college requires the learning of subjects that are difficult. The level of difficulty will naturally vary from subject to subject and from person to person, but we can all agree that this level should be high. The material should, for example, be more difficult than that found in high school or middle school. Further, most subjects will increase in difficulty as time passes. Think of history (more facts pile up daily), physics (from ceramic superconductors to string theory), and so on. College, then, is and should be difficult by definition.

It is also true, and known by everybody, that certain people are smarter and more capable than others, and some are stupider and less capable. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Those at the bottom cannot master difficult subjects, while those at the top do so easily. Those in the middle sometimes struggle and attain mastery, or other times they struggle and fail. Obviously, it sometimes happens—but rarely—that lines are crossed and surprising talents are found among those otherwise incapable, and inexplicable blind spots are found among those otherwise capable. These scattered events in no way change the general conclusion that follows.

Under these premises, because college is difficult it is true that those who graduate have attained a high level of knowledge. The value of the education is thus high (in terms of knowledge; forget about money for now).

All would be well except for the fiendish group of people known as Those Who Care. They insist that “most people should go to college!” (we explore why they say this and its consequences next time). Very well. We must make it so that most do.

So imagine next year we open the gates and accept all comers (as City University of New York in 1970 did). Bad news. The difficulty of the material is such that few can master it, as we have already agreed. People flunk out, including a good number of those who the college is desirous of keeping. The dilemma is that either the people are flunked out—honestly told that they are not smart or capable enough to handle the material—or the material itself must be changed, watered down and made easier so that more people can master it. The watering down may be accomplished by either allowing inconsequential material to be taught, or lessening the difficulty of the current material, or both.

Scarecrow gets his degree

As will be obvious to all of us, this is exactly what has happened. The number of colleges and universities has grown dramatically over the past fifty years and a larger percentage of people are going to college now than ever before. Those Who Care want this percentage to increase. If they get their way, this must mean that the material will weaken further.

So instead of our assurance that college graduates have attained a high level of knowledge, we know that as college attendance increases, graduates on average know less. The value of education is decreased in direct proportion to the percent of the population that attend college.

But graduates knowing less matters little to Those Who Care. What they want is for people to have a degree. What’s a degree? A piece of paper, a diploma. The same thing the Wizard of Oz gave Scarecrow:

Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D…that’s Doctor of Thinkology.

What did Scarecrow say immediately upon receiving his diploma? “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.”

Pay attention Those Who Care, because that’s wrong. It’s the sums of the squares (not square roots) of the two short sides of a right triangle (not isosceles) that equal the square of the remaining side. But then Scarecrow only got a degree, he didn’t master any knowledge.

——————————————-

Notes

My argument so far has nothing to do with any sociological or economic circumstance, about what class of people can afford college and so forth—that is for next time. All we need for premises are that college material should be difficult and that some people are smarter and more capable than others.

It might be true that those most capable will still gain an education that befits their talents at college, but they instead seem to be doing so at graduate school (Masters and PhD). Plus, because colleges require sets of courses (core and majors) and those required courses must contain less content as attendance increases, it is inevitable that even the most capable are learning less at college.

If the most capable are still learning as much eventually, then it might be argued that those less capable are still learning something at college, and so it is worth it. That is a question of economics and knowledge, about which more next time.

It could also be that colleges maintain a high level of material but weaken assessments, passing more for the sake of passing more. This is grade inflation and it also happens.

Another way to answer the argument is to dumb down the high school and middle school material so that the college material is still defined as “more difficult”. More people can then master it. Sadly, a little of this seems to be at work, too.

The entire line above can also be adapted, though not entirely, to show why high school material has become weaker: most kids now go to high school, whereas 100 years ago few did, and everybody agrees that the material then was more demanding than it is now.

23 Comments

  1. “Multiple Choice” I have always called these tests “Multiple Guess” against the protests of my son, who would not have made it this far in college without them. Of course, I should probably say “take your best guess test” to be more precise, but that takes too many words and doesn’t work as well.

    I agree with you, that college should be demanding. However, here in California anyone can attend a Junior College, no matter one’s qualifications. And, yes indeed, the coursework is barely above the level of good high school class. To top it all off, if you get through the Junior College GE requirements with a B average, you are sent straight off to a UC.

    And, don’t even get me started about the liberal nonsense that is being taught in history, economics, political science, and social science classes (are these really sciences???)

  2. Bruce: are these really sciences???

    Technically, yes. “Science” is derived from the Latin word “scientia”, which means “knowledge”. Whether those disciplines follow the Scientific Method is another question. Interestingly, mathematics (which you didn’t mention and it, too, gets its share of liberalism — often in the form of exercises[*]) doesn’t follow scientific method and is more akin to philosophy.

    [*] The greedy Lumber Company wants to increase its profits by destroying a valuable forest helping to fight Global Warming by greenhouse gas reduction. How many ….

  3. College football is “set aside only for those most able to meet its rigors.” To do otherwise would result in a lot of injuries and some pretty bad football.

  4. Around here, there are rules in place that require every student be promoted to the next grade, right on through the end of high school. There are people who cannot read at a gr 3 level with a high school diploma.

    Our local universities introduced a full additional year to catch and release the hopeless – “University 1”. This is a thrill for students who are truly qualified and smart, and who now must pay for an extra year of reviews of high school material at university rates.

    How is it surprising that pressure is now on universities and colleges to dumb down? And how long before everybody who puts in the time gets a degree? After all, experiencing failure would be oh so traumatic.

  5. Bruce,

    To be fair to the California community college transfers– I am one of them– most of the ones who manage to get into a UC probably end up at a school of a similar caliber as they would have out of high school. I attended a community college purely for financial reasons, and I know several others who did the same (my fiancee, for example.) The system in California is absolutely fantastic because it lets qualified individuals pursue a UC education when they otherwise could not afford one.

    And while it’s true that many CC classes are of a “good high school” course difficulty, I actually found that many of my classes at my CC were quite difficult– particularly the quantitative courses. My fiancee opined once that some of her classes at the same CC were actually more difficult than a couple she took at our UC.

    As always, your mileage may vary, and different campuses offer different courses.

    While it is true that a B average will get you into a UC, it will not get you into any UC. Entrance into UCLA and Berkeley is still a fairly difficult task, and I’m inclined to believe (based on anecdotal and statistical evidence) that most transfers into the “better” UCs are certainly of the same caliber as those who entered as freshmen.

    There are exceptions, but that’s always the case.

    Really, if it sounds like I’m being defensive… I am. The California community college system allowed me and my fiancee the opportunity to pursue a UC education at a reduced cost. Had I not gone to a CC, I may have had to attend a lower-ranked UC or even a Cal State to afford college. For me, the system worked wonderfully and I will defend it until the bitter end because I know scores of others who were in similar situations.

    Note, however, that this does not necessarily negate Matt’s argument. If anything, I’m all in favor of making CCs more difficult. I just don’t think that the idea itself is bad– a variation on that whole “baby with the bathwater” thing, I suppose.

  6. Much to my disgust, any college courses I have had that mirrored the subject matter of my high school courses did not present any new material.

    I fondly remember my Microbial Physiology class where we had a brand new teacher which meant none of his old tests were circulating for all the cheaters to lean upon. You never heard such whining! I truly enjoyed the challenge of that class. Short answer tests and the teacher would read out anonymously some of the funnier evasive answers and also some of those that aced the question. He was also into the very weird bacteria (spirochetes, methanogens, phosphorescent types, etc), so that made things extra interesting.

    It is a crime against the brightest to dumb down the curricula. I often wish people weren’t so contentious when their child’s intellect is mentioned. You either have it or you don’t. Unlike physical beauty which can be bought from a surgeon these days, there is nothing that will make you smarter (whatever they did in Flowers for Algernon and memory RNA excluded).

    When I was in school, efforts to provide more challenging classes for gifted students were hampered by people who would complain that it was always the same group of kids in those classes – well DUH! So they would do little tricks like scheduling two of the advanced classes at the same time. Gee thanks! That made it so much better for us!

  7. Matt,

    Something occurred to me. You said:

    “So instead of our assurance that college graduates have attained a high level of knowledge, we know that as college attendance increases, graduates on average know less. The value of education is decreased in direct proportion to the percent of the population that attend college. ”

    This is marginally true, but there’s a wrinkle that you’re missing: not all colleges are created equal. There is a very big difference between the Harvards and the Arizona States. This, I think, is well-recognized amongst most people and is reflected in the fact that everyone and their dog attempts to rank universities.

    Furthermore, how is my education at Famous Ivy University in any way affected by the schlub at Arizona State getting his degree in Golf Management? (yes, that’s a real degree: http://morrison.asu.edu/msma/pgm/)

    You say:

    “So instead of our assurance that college graduates have attained a high level of knowledge, we know that as college attendance increases, graduates on average know less.”

    I think we need to control for the very high variability amongst student populations in order to say something meaningful here. Are we talking about the average graduate of Caltech, where the student body has and will probably always be amongst the top 1% of undergrads, or the average graduate of a middling public university? I might be convinced of the latter graduate knowing less, but the average Caltech grad? I don’t know.

    Or are you saying that the _______ of the average grad of the entire college graduate cohort of any given year has declined? In that case, we again go back to the rankings. Damn the rankings for being wishy-washy and impossible to navigate methodologically, but they serve a purpose for employers and graduate schools alike. They help us to navigate the morass of universities and liberal arts colleges in order to at least estimate the ability of the average graduate.

    So, while I am inclined to agree with you that the average knowledge (or whatever other metric you choose) of the entire college graduate population is declining, I am skeptical that graduates of the typically “elite” universities are much changed.

    [Note that while I have my hoity-toity “top school” degree, I do not claim to believe that it makes me a necessarily better person. I simply believe that the average “top school” graduate remains of greater ability than the average Arizona State graduate]

  8. Ari,

    All your points about California Community Colleges are well taken and I certainly understand why many, such as yourself and my family, take advantage of the cost savings afforded by them.

    However, to engage Mr. Briggs’ argument that college should be difficult, I think my main concerns with the community college system are twofold. First, is that it is easy (ratemyprofessors.com) for students to chart an easy path through the CC that really doesn’t prepare them for the rigors of their remaining upper division years at a 4 year institution. Second, community colleges accept anyone with little regard for academic ability. This creates situations where classes are often full, leaving intellectually deserving students adding extra months to their two year stint just to get the classes they need. Most disappointing thing about this, is that many of the less able students withdraw prior to completing the classes, so the space and instructor time they took up is wasted.

    I am also concerned with the dependencies on government support and what happens if you are in a CC program that is suddenly disrupted due to budget cuts, as we in California are now experiencing. And, this leads to my questioning the real cost of these state run colleges. If you add up the taxes and bond measures required to keep them running, what is the true cost to you personally, your family, and what is the loss to society due to missed opportunity costs.

    Having a son in the community college system, I am still struggling with my thoughts about all this, but I am starting to see the benefits of private university education, private trade schools, and private apprenticeships to serve a broad range of temperaments and capabilities. Seeing what is going on in my own state, I can even understand the Austrian School of Economics view of an all private school system with no government support or involvement.

    Thank you Mr. Briggs for opening up this Pandora’s box. I look forward to some lively discussion.

  9. Bruce,

    I see your concern, but I also offer the following observations:

    – typically speaking, the weakest students at a community college are quickly weeded out of the classes that a future UC student will take (often in an “honors” track.)

    – we tend to find that, at least at the UCs, community college transfers perform as well as their 4-year peers in upper division classes. This is easily observed through the statistics made available by the UC system and individual campuses.

    As for your concern about less able students withdrawing… well… yes. That is a problem in some classes. However, to be honest I found it no more of a problem than walking into a large lecture hall at the UC campus I attended for undergrad.

    One thing I think we should note about the UC system is that the two flagships (Berkeley and UCLA) are both majority privately-funded. That ought to tell you about the year-to-year vagaries and fluctuations in state funding and what the campuses think of their publicly-sourced money.

    However, you only measure one side of the cost-benefit analysis (namely, cost). Say what you will about the hippie-dippy Cal and UCLA campuses, but they both benefit California a great deal. In fact, all of the UC campuses, Merced excluded simply due to newness, probably create more “utility” than they cost. But, I am of the belief that not all utility can be measured in dollars– and I suppose that may separate me from some Mises-types.

  10. The entire thesis rests on the presumption that colleges are in the business of educating people. That might have been true 100 years ago, but no longer is the case.

    They are day care centers for overgrown children, social welfare agencies, party headquarters, sports franchises, political indoctrination camps, etc. Education has nothing to do with it anymore.

  11. Education was touted to become the opiat of the masses wasn’t it?

    Hasn’t that aim been achieved on the evidence presented then?

  12. What passes for education these days is really indoctrination, and generally of falsehoods. Your average college graduate has to spend years unlearning the garbage they were “taught.” If they are lucky — most never undo the damage.

    Hence your “high achiever” student is the one who soaks up the most claptrap, and is thus the least able to function productively after college, whereas the dropout is first to advance to useful employment and with the fewest goofy notions.

    In my field I see this all the time. The more the “education” the less able to perform even the simplest of tasks.

    It’s a hard fact that the most successful people did not get there with a stack of degrees. Bill Gates didn’t matriculate well — now he donates gazillions to universities he eschewed. Is that because he so highly values college education, or because he wants to get kids hooked on his software?

    If you want to learn something useful, don’t expect to get it at a college. I make no distinction between public and private colleges in that regard, either.

  13. Briggs

    May 27, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Ari,

    I hope to cover your (relevant) point about better versus worse schools in the follow up post. I hinted about it in the “Notes” section by suggesting that even better schools (because of required classes) will degrade. But there are other reasons I haven’t covered yet.

    But, yes, “on average”, the value of the education is declining. It helps to exaggerate to think about this. Suppose that all people go to college (this might not be an unlikely scenario sometime in the future). Then it is obvious that state of “having a degree” would be meaningless. In order to separate people, we would have to look elsewhere for markers of ability. The school granting the degree would obviously be one, but a weak one. Even Cornell (my alma matter) awards degrees in Hotel Management (probably no different than your Golf Management). A degree, Lord help us.

    Speed,

    Football players can always get a “degree” in something intellectually rigorous like Sports (even Golf) Management.

    Incidentally, I don’t say the skills learned in these courses are useless. About which, more later.

  14. To analyse these issues that do not only concern the US , it is useful to look at other countries and other systems .
    There is specifically one country that has a special dual system which doesn’t exist in any other country in this form – France .
    It has been created by Napoleon more than 200 years ago because he needed very high level engineers for his armies and considered that the century old university system was not good enough at delivering it .
    And as he was a scientist himself , he knew what he was talking about .
    So beside the public universities Napoleon created the system of Grandes Ecoles .

    Both systems recruit the same students at the same age (18 years) at the end of high school .
    But there are 2 fundamental differencies :
    – everybody who has the end of high school degree (baccalaureat) has the right to enter a University and the University has a duty to accept him
    – everybody who wants to enter a Grand Ecole has to pass a test and here we are talking difficult both written and oral tests (4 hours mathematics , 4 hours physics , etc) . Each Grand Ecole has its own tests . All students are then ranked from 1 to N and if there are 100 places available then the ranks 1 to 100 are admitted , 101 and farther failed .

    So clearly Matt’s observation roughly apply also to the french University system but they don’t apply to the french Grand Ecole system . Even though more Ecoles have been founded since Napoleon because the need of engineers and scientists increased , it is still a very small percentage of the total of the students and they are still selected by tests and ranking .

    What are the effects of such a dual system ?
    Well one is similar to what you see with the “Ivy League” in US even if it is not a dual institutional system . The best science students find themselves in the Grandes Ecoles and not in the University .
    Companies recruiting engineers and scientists go for Grandes Ecoles first and almost every single CEO of any big company graduated from a Grande Ecole too .
    It is also there that you will find Nobels and Field medals .
    So the dual system produces every year some 30 000 scientists and engineers and some 500 000 other degrees are produced by the University (medicine , law , history , sociology , litterature etc) .
    Of course most parents would like their child entering a Grand Ecole but here the choice is simple : either their child is in the top 5% performers and he’ll be able to pass the tests or he isn’t and he won’t .
    In most European systems I know , the selection exists anyway because every country needs to breed its own intellectual elite too but in most of those countries it is hidden and occult and the word “selection” is a word to be ashamed of .
    So while the French dual system doesn’t produce more of the “elite” than other systems , it detects and selects it early on and identifies clearly for the companies recruitment needs where this selection is and how it works .

    Obviously periodically the left wing politicians demand that the dual system be terminated because it is not democratic and “discriminates” 95 % of the students .
    To what the right wing politicians answer that nothing is more democratic than a a very hard test because everybody can pass it but some will be much better at it than others .
    And as it is performant , it stays .

    It is true that in all countries the trend is to accept more “students” every year (why it is so would need another post) and I think that the answer to that will be to create explicitely or implicitely dual systems similar to the french one .
    The reason for that is simple .
    If one admits that the distribution of “learning ability” is a gaussian , then if you want to increase the size of the sample , the marginal increase of numbers will have the lowest learning ability in the sample .
    But as you will always need the far right region of the Gaussian where the highest learning abilities are , the most efficient way is to make a cut off with one particular system for the small number of students far right on the gaussian and another system for the big numbers in the average .

  15. Matt,

    I had to verify Big Red’s Hotel Lernin’ Program for myself… and… there it is. It even has a website.

    Still, I suppose it’s better than a degree in communications! (zing!)

    Still, I disagree that school attended is a weak marker. That’s like saying that the difference between the cohort of SAT takers who score less than 1000 are only somewhat different, on average, from those scoring above 1400. Both empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest otherwise to me.

    Mike,

    I don’t know that I would go that far. I think the real problem is not the indoctrination (though it is there), but the lack of real-world applicability of most coursework. A good example is how statistics is taught (yes, I’m going there.) I learned how to calculate Z scores and a confidence interval for many more hours than how to actually THINK about statistics. I did almost two years of statistics in undergrad and grad and probably learned more about how to THINK about applying statistical inference from this blog.

    Now, my professors were all well-trained in stats, were apparently interested in teaching it fairly, and worked really really hard. They just… sucked at it. They all taught from books like Wooldridge, who seems to believe that the real world is a hazy concept best removed from textbooks.

    Unfortunately, academics seem to be prone to crawling up their own tuchuses and really enjoying the view. Present company excepted, of course. 😉

  16. Oooh…it’s a grave mistake to conflate grade inflation with falling academic standards. Just ask a professor of Education. 🙂

    I believe (no proof needed) higher education is important. I think the value of a college education depends on the reasons why you go to college, the effort you put in, and others. Not everyone needs to go to college. Not everyone wants to go to college. Somehow young adults should be better advised and guided. I have seen numerous students who only want to get (earn?!) a degree and often graduate with a low GPA (A GPA of 3.0 now should not be considered great due to grade inflation). They would have been better served by technical/vocational education. Perhaps, this economic downturn will prompt young adults to rethink the value of their college education.

  17. Good thread, Matt. I’m not noticing many comment on “why” this shift in higher education is taking [or has taken] place. Imo, there are two reasons, which may or may not be interconnected:
    1. Even though they lost the cold war, “Those Who Care”, ie: communists, socialists, leftists, et al, are winning the culture war by taking over western Academia; and
    2. In the process of taking over academics they adopted a growth business model calling for expansion. To provide the income necessary to support additional professors such expansion required, they needed more and more students. To gain additional students standards needed to be “softened”. Ergo, “Those Who Care” have dumbed down academia.

    Is it too late for a college to return to what once was and turn out well-educated, trained, inquistivie and commercially desirable graduates? Serious question.

  18. The result of the huge increase in the numbers of people attending college, is that where a high school diploma was sufficient, now an advanced degree is required. If you think I exaggerate, I have 3 friends who bypassed college and went into engineering, computer science and securities trading respectively. None would be able to get their current jobs with less than a master’s degree. And now, when I am hiring, I will never even see a resume with experience short of a BA from a top 20 ranked college, and more likely I will see MBA or MS or even a PhD.

    Is there really a difference in the pedigree of an Ivy League education and a “lesser” school? Perhaps — the pedigree shows that you were smart enough to impress the admissions office. Once in school, the quality of the education has everything to do with the student and quite little to do with the school. Yes, I had opportunities to learn from Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners. While those awards show that they were brilliant in there fields, did it make them better at explaining the fundamentals to a 20 year old kid?

  19. In unrelated news, someone found out that if you add 2 to 2, one will get 4! A Nobel Prize awaits for the discovery.

  20. Indeed, more students require more teachers. However, public institutions in many states have been experiencing multiple rounds of budget cuts, and consequently have curtailed hiring of new faculty for the past few years. The class size has been increased. (I know, we are not talking about K-12, where grade inflation is prevalent.) And the tuition has been soaring for state undergraduate students.

    You might be interested in knowing that about 65% of students who need remedial math courses (taught by wonderfully patient graduate students) drops out of school at my institution.

    Yes, more students have been admitted into college. Based on my experience, the number of well-prepared students has not decreased. There are many challenging opportunities for talented students in the American higher education system! I am more worried about college affordability more than anything else.

  21. Matt:

    Thanks for pointing out the errors made by the Scarecrow after receiving his diploma. I first noticed it when I was in Junior High, and couldn’t seem to get anyone interested.

    On the other side of the coin, as a reminder to some of your readers, the other picture you provide is that of the future SENATOR Blutarsky, after 7 years of college and a 0.0 GPA.

  22. For me, it’s not the school you attend; it’s the attitude that you attain and leave with that’s much more important. The best attitude, I think, is one in which you know you have much more to learn and you love the act of learning and look forward to continue learning for decades.

    One fact that astounded me the first time I saw it was that higher-education institutions report their 6-year graduation rate for undergraduate degrees. And it seems that it goes up from there. Whatever happened to the 4-year plan? I think that represents a 50% reduction in productivity on the part of the education industry and the consequent need for more faculty / larger class sizes / more TAs ‘teaching’ in an auditorium filled with 600 ‘students’. When I was in school, the first objective was to get out of there as soon as possible.

    The present situation has led to statements like, I finished my work and earned a B. A. degree in Studies Studies. It was the finest 10 years of my life.

  23. Briggs,

    Nobody is demanding that “everyone” be allowed onto the football team because it is obvious that … the more football players there are the less (good) football there is.

    “They” have trouble seeing that the same applies to academics.

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