Send Fewer Students to College
College is the wrong choice for many students, and will be for the foreseeable future.


Marcus A. Winters says we should “send more students to college.” He is responding, in part, to my NR piece making the opposite case. My argument is that when 40 percent of college students fail to graduate in six years, and when about a quarter of employed college graduates have jobs that don’t require degrees, it’s obvious we’re pushing too many kids into higher education.

Winters essentially (though not explicitly) concedes that now is not the time to ship more kids off to postsecondary institutions. He notes Charles Murray’s documentation of the fact that lots of today’s high-school graduates are not ready for college-level work. Winters disagrees, however, when Murray says there is very little we can do to change this.

I also objected when I reviewed Murray’s Real Education. I pointed out some research showing that high-quality teachers can improve student outcomes, suggesting that we can make a little bit of progress. Winters takes this line of thought much farther, making essentially an anti-Murray case: Schools are so powerful that, with the right reforms, they can significantly narrow, or even close, achievement gaps between various racial and income groups. He points to a study of New York City charter schools — which found that charter schools increase scores significantly relative to New York City public schools — as well as to the aforementioned teacher-quality research. Reforms like these, he implies, will lift almost everyone above the college-ready threshold, thus eliminating the ability-based objection to sending all high-school graduates to college.

Inner-city charter schools and teacher-quality initiatives are promising and deserve greater implementation, but I’m highly skeptical that they will prove to be the panacea Winters is looking for. In the past few decades, there have been countless initially promising solutions to this problem, none of which ended up doing much to help. I’d be surprised, albeit delighted, if these reforms more than marginally increased the proportion of high-school graduates who are college-ready. And that’s assuming teachers’ unions don’t kill them before they’re implemented.

The New York City study in particular isn’t as promising as Winters makes it out to be. For one thing, it involved exactly the kind of students that even Murray admits can benefit from better education: inner-city kids stuck in truly awful schools. What about all the kids who go to schools that appear perfectly fine, but who still aren’t college-ready when they graduate?

On the easy standardized-test questions Murray highlights, one of which Winters quotes, about half of eighth-graders don’t know the answers. Certainly, fewer than half of American children go to schools so bad that they’d be radically better off in charter schools. Winters seems unwilling to believe so many people could be so dull; I appreciate Winterss faith that virtually all of humanity can learn complicated academic material, but Im afraid I dont share it.

Further, all the kids in the study had parents who cared enough to apply to charter schools (the control-group public-school kids had applied to charter schools but were denied by lottery). The change from a terrible public school to a charter school might not have as big an effect for kids whose parents don’t pressure them to take advantage of the new opportunities. Not to mention that one benefit of charter schools is that students get away from poorly behaved peers. If the program expanded so that everyone went to charter schools, these bad apples would come along with the others, and this advantage would weaken.

And even if all these studies’ results hold true across the board, and even if all levels of government work together to implement the reforms Winters envisions, it will be years before we see significant results. Only then can this analysis influence our policies regarding sending more kids to college. Until that point, we’re stuck figuring out what to do with the kids who graduate from the secondary schools we have now — and for many of those kids, college isn’t working.

Winters argues that in addition to being able to get more kids into college, we need to. Why? Because, he says, our economy has a strong, unmet demand for educated workers. He uses as evidence the fact that the “college wage premium” (the degree to which college graduates out-earn high-school graduates) has increased over the past few decades. The economic logic seems sound — if the price is going up and the supply is staying about the same, the demand is probably increasing. From this, it follows that if we can use public policy to increase the supply of college-educated workers, we should seriously consider doing so.


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