August 13, 2008, - 10:12 am

Charles Murray is Right: College is a Waste of Time

By Debbie Schlussel
I’ve always said that college is a four-year artificial way to keep people out of the work force. For most, it doesn’t teach them anything, unless they are studying engineering or some of the biological sciences. Poll after poll shows that college students are ignorant and dumber than ever–yes, even at the over-rated Harvard and Yale. And the four years in a scenic setting don’t make ’em any smarter. On the contrary, it’s usually the other way around.
Today, scholar Charles Murray–one of my favorite sociologists and writers–has an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, “For Most People, College is a Waste of Time.” It’s an essay from his upcoming book, “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.”


In his essay, Murray points out how silly and unnecessary college is for everyone except those studying a few scientific disciplines. He proposes, instead, standardized examinations akin to the CPA exam for aspiring accountants. He points out that standardized exams and measurements would actually open up accreditation in most fields to those economically unable to go to college. Everyone, instead, would have to do well on the same exams and could study whereever and however they wanted for those exams.
Of course, you know this will never happen. Colleges are big business. They have NFL, NBA, and NHL players to train. They have talentless, left-wing professors with the same lecture notes and syllabi as 20 years ago to which to pay $100,000 plus salaries. And, after all, doesn’t everyone need to experience a drunken frat party to say they’ve truly lived? College presidents and giant, established bureaucracies that have been built around this mass gathering of airheads, bong-hits, and Barack Obama rallies, would never allow their tax-sucking, rent-seeking, hate-America-pimping, ever-growing fiefdoms to be destroyed. Why stop this genius way to drain America’s hard-working, middle-class families of all their savings and transfer it into the pockets of lazy left-wing intellectuals who look like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh? It’ll never happen . . . at least, not in my lifetime.
Plus, we will hear the usual stale claptrap ojections that we hear from self-anointed civil rights activists today about the SATs and ACTs–whines and complaints alleging that standardized tests are “racist” and “discriminatory.”
Still, I like Charles Murray’s idea–even if, for now and the foreseeable future, it will sadly not be in the cards. To date, employers continue to put a value (though the value is decreasing rapidly) on a degree at Schmo U. Here’s an excerpt:

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:
First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”
You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that’s the system we have in place. . . .
The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.
The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough — four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you’re a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

Read the whole thing.
Charles Murray is, without a doubt, one of the great thinkers of our time. If only we would follow even a fraction of his suggestions.

18 Responses

True. Imagine the shock for me when I read a memo from my supervisor (MDOC) that reads like the village idiot wrote it. Or another one where the higher ranked administrator was so (common sense) stupid that she allowed herself to be manipulated by a small group of prisoners so that a memo she puts out CONTRADICTS written policy and procedure. In favor of the prisoners and against officers! It took her about 2 more years for her to get fired for over familiarity. She works at the Wal Mart in Belleville Michigan. Yeah college educated a–holes have been a hinderance for the most part. Their condescending attitude isn’t a plus either.

samurai on August 13, 2008 at 10:53 am

From Murray’s article, “Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth require scores on a certain battery of certification tests from all of its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the industry.”
Actually, Microsoft does indeed have certification tests. I can’t say for sure if Microsoft requires their programmers, but they do have certification tests for most of their products.

Jeff_W on August 13, 2008 at 11:09 am

One other option I’d add is 2 year community colleges.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it’s so uncool to say that, but I graduated from one and it was great for me. My family in no way could or would afford a university and frankly I was too naive and stupid for much more.
But, community colleges prepare you for ONLY what you need for a certain career and you are out the door and into the job market. I got an Associate Degree and didn’t owe a cent for the schooling. I know several college graduates who have long ago graduated and 99% are still deep in debt.
I’ve gotten a good career as a computer programmer from it.
I’ve always said most people entering college are wasting their money because they aren’t sure what they are doing and have no realistic goals, if they even have written goals (and studies I’ve read prove most don’t). Community colleges and technical schools are a much better fit for most I’d bet.
I’ve interviewed a great deal of college students for programmers. Hardly any went to college for programming. From what I’ve read, the vast majority of computer programmers who have a degree did not get a degree in programming. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard, “With my music/English/political science degree if you aren’t a teacher you are pretty much out of luck.”

Jeff_W on August 13, 2008 at 11:20 am

I was looking at my college undergraduate transcript the other day and was amazed at some of the b.s. courses I took. I saw that in the Fall of 1971 (my first semester) I took a course called “Art and Current Ideas” and said to myself “What the hell was that?”

Ripper on August 13, 2008 at 12:32 pm

I’ve heard this approach before and tend to agree with it. Look at the competency testing that other vocations require. Even construction trades need to prove their qualifications. I am in the investment industry and although not technically required, the CFA (Chartered Finacial Analyst)exam is another good example of proof of qualifications. As a CPA myself, I couldn’t agree with you more.

RightInSeattle on August 13, 2008 at 1:17 pm

I had the pleasure of seeing Charles Murray in Cambridge where he autographed my copy of his book, “The Bell Curve.”
Just because Charles Murray and the late Dick Hernstein reproduced the IQ differences between the races — information that was known a longtime — Prof. Murray was blasted unmercifully, including a ridiculous protest with bells outside of where Dr. Murray was giving us a lecture.
Dr. Murray says that Jews are the smartest of the ethnicities in terms of IQ (one wouldn’t know this the way Israel is run). It was Charles Murray who wrote that in “The Bell Curve.” The late Dick Hernstein (he died of stomach cancer before the book was published) recused himself from writing about Jewish IQ, perhaps out of conflict of interest fears.

Underzog on August 13, 2008 at 4:11 pm

I agree with the overall aim of toughening college admissions and using rigorous standardized tests to screen candidates.
However, the CPA exam is not a good model for such a test. That exam has been dumbed down beyond recognition. Even 40 years ago, candidates could take it multiple time. Now, candidates do not even have to take the whole exam at once. They can take one part now, another part next month, & so on, since their poor addled brains can’t tolerate the whole exam at once (which by the way, used to be 19 hours, rather than 14.
Further, it is now alll multiple choice. Nominally this is for ease of grading, but again, just a dumbing down. It used to have
sizable parts long problems — of the type an accountant in pratice might encounter — and essays, showing that the candidate was indeed literate, & knew how to write. Now, if they measured writing ability, most candidates wouldn’t pass. I have encountered numerous communications by CPAs that are so poorly written that some years ago a fifth grader would be ashamed of them (I have encountered similar communications by lawyers, present company excluded).
Some of these people shouldn’t be CPAs, but a warning: don’t go to an accountant who couldn’t even pass it. Odds are overwhelming they’ll mess up whatever you want done. You have to be really stupid these days not to pass the CPA exam.

c f on August 13, 2008 at 4:23 pm

One other thing — like many other standardized tests, the CPA is based on a curve. Thus, getting a 90% on the exam doesn’t necessarily mean that a candidate answered 90% of the questions right. In the old days, when the test did have some rigor, fewer than 10% of the candidates passed the entire examine at first sitting. Like the College Boards, 800 is not a perfect score.

c f on August 13, 2008 at 4:45 pm

I’m sorry to belabor this, but if CPAs as a whole — I know there are some extremely capable and intelligent CPAs, but they are a small handful of the profession — were intelligent or capable, you wouldn’t have massive financial institutions writing off tens and tens of billions of dollars all of a sudden, when, supposedly, CPAs had examined their financial assertions continuously (not to mention Enron & related fiascos several years ago).

c f on August 13, 2008 at 5:16 pm

you should do some research before being so critical, something that a reader of this site should be well aware of. I am a CPA candidate myself, and am halfway through the tests. Firstly, for the most part the curve on the CPA exam had curved candidates down not up, so your curve argument is a waste of time. Second, the CPA exam has not been dumbed down as you say, there are still essays 6 of them to be exact, and there is SO much more material on the current exams than in the past. My father took the exam over 20 years ago, and yes he took them all at one time, but there are so many more rules and regulations in areas such as financial accounting, taxes, business law and even an added IT component. The passing rates might be slightly higher, but still very low for this type of test. I do not have any more time to tell you why your other comments make even less sense, but i must go study now- i am taking part 3 tomorrow.

Skoch44 on August 13, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Skoch44, your entry proves my point. You apparently don’t understand the mathematics of a curve. What it means is that a score of 90% does not necessarily mean that someone got 90% of the questions right; so a score of, say 80 is misleading, since the candidate may have gotten much less than 80% of the questions right. Really saying something after a months-long review. I don’t know how a curve would’curve people down’ you may be speaking about the fact that someone who gets less than a passing score is rounded downward to failing more than being rounded upward. This is different from curving, although many are, indeed rounded upward. The score is a relative ratio in comparison to the other test-takers, and invariably will be trended up.
With all the new regulations, why has the length of the exam been shortened? Shouldn’t it be lengthened in that case? The obvious answer is that the depth of knowledge measured is much less. How can there be more material measured if the time is 25% less, 14 hrs instead of 19 hours? (BTW, ‘exam’ is singular, not plural; you take IT, not THEM, and if you say ‘firstly’ you should say ‘secondly’ not ‘second’ — proving my point about functional illiteracy among new CPAs). I repeat, if someone cannot pass the exam after taking one part at a time, and being able to retake, ad nauseum, the parts he couldn’t pass, he does not have a triple-digit IQ.
You also didn’t respond to the fact that the first time you take it you don’t even have to take the whole exam, anymore, the ultimate dumbing down! No, I was wrong, it is not entirely multiple choice, but certainly close.

c f on August 13, 2008 at 7:38 pm

also ‘say’ should be followed by a semi-colon, not a comma. (l. 5 , paragraph 1)

c f on August 13, 2008 at 7:42 pm

My son spent 6 months in Spain studying Spanish. The experience was eye opening. Most of his learning did not come from a structrued class. Real world experience and structured time speaking witn native speakers were the primary means to develop his language skills. Yes, grammar was studied and he attended classed, but in a way that melded with his other learning. When he was ready he took certification tests. When passed he moved on to the next level. Native speakers here in the states are impressed with is ability to converse. He placed out of 14 hours of College Spanish. When talking to non native speaking degreed Spanish majors, he amazes them. Enrolled in college, his first upper division class in Spanish nearly killed him. Poorly taught, and a waste of time. He is thinking of signing up with the same school and heading to Argentina for the next round. Charles Murray hit the nail on the head, yet again.

Winsur4 on August 13, 2008 at 10:40 pm

I’ve gone back to college and onto university for a @$%#ing history degree, and I think it’s flippin’ worthless!
Most of my teachers go into lectures that are not about the cycles of specific civilizations, the methods of preservation, rules and ethics of historical research or historical work, etc. Instead they just recite their biased history and assign us to read books – half the books I’ve had to read so far were HISTORICAL FICTION! Novels! Not real history!
I’ve just completed an archive for a federal agency that even to local historical society said is top rate. I did it on true grit, self study, and just giving things a try. That’s what they don’t teach you in college or university: real skills!!
I learned to be an archivist in six months of DIY/on-the-job training, and now I’m competitive in the marketplace.
The only reason I think that many places require a Masters or bachelors is because of the local associations, societies and such that want to seem glorious. So they put pressure on agencies and emplyers to hire only folks with a masters degree in their accredited programs.
To sum it up, I have a phrase my sister-in-law once emailed me, “Amateurs built the Ark; professionals built the Titanic.” Let academia and associations put that in their bongs and smoke it!

bhparkman on August 14, 2008 at 12:41 am

That one can pass an exam is no indication that one can apply the knowledge in the field. Being a good CPA is so much more than being able to perform technical calculations and memorize rules.
A CPA fresh out of college and who has just passed the CPA exam is barely more qualified to prepare your financial statement or your tax return than any other business grad (and not because the testing isn’t sufficiently rigorous). It takes years of on-the-job training and experience to develop the skills and judgment needed to be a good CPA. The skill set goes far, far, beyond technical abilities.
I learned a lot in college in spite of the government and political interference, in spite of the nonsensical tests, and in spite of the liberal professors. I think college is a good idea despite the sometimes valid criticisms. And I agree that not everyone is college material.
College isn’t a waste of time. It needs to be improved–perhaps reinvented–but not done away with. I don’t disagree with many of the criticisms leveled by Murray and shared by posters and DS above, but I’m not convinced that studying to test is the answer. I like the idea of apprenticeships and mentoring.
I view education as a lifelong process. College helped me “learn how to learn.”

cumulusnine on August 14, 2008 at 9:54 am

This was very well put. I have thought about how to say this for years and you put it quite eloquently.
But until the day that employers see it this way, the college industry will continue to waste and grow, waste and grow……

hairymon on August 14, 2008 at 12:59 pm

While I have never ever been strong on grammar, and I am not a good writer, it does not mean that it is not tested. IT actually stands for Information Technology which is currently a large part of the BEC test, so no the word should not be THEM and if you are referring to THEM- yes they are seperate tests, always were, and probaly always will be. It is true that the test is shorter in time, and can be taken in 4 parts on 4 seperate days not in 2 consecutive days like it (this is meant to be it not IT) was in the past. But why dont you look at every Tax, Business Law, and GAAP rule made in the last 10 years, and you are going to tell me that there is not more information currently on the exam? Please. As far as the curve, you clearly do not understand a bell curve. While a 90 is not really a 90 what I am saying is that someone who gets a 75 (the passing score) could have actually gotten 78% of the questions right, yes that is how a curve can work. WHile in most colleges it does not work like that due to grade inflation, it can, and should work like that. As far as it being MOSTLY multiple choice, again you are wrong- three parts MC 2 parts simulation for three out of the four exams, the fourth one is all MC, but might not be that way for long.

Skoch44 on August 14, 2008 at 6:00 pm

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