Arnold Kling  

Attending College != Graduating College

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In the June issue of The Atlantic, "Professor X" rants,

Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence

Perhaps Tyler Cowen was implicitly referring to that article. In any case, in order to know whether there is much to be gained at the margin by more students attending college, one needs to look at the relevant margin. Comparing average salaries of college graduates to non-graduates is not what counts, because the former have higher cognitive abilities. Better would be to compare the salary of someone who graduates with someone of similar cognitive ability who does not attend college. Or to compare the salaries of the no-hopers who try college at institutions like Professor X's with those who instead forego the attempt.

Note: != is a computer-language expression for "not equals"

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
jb writes:

Cognitive ability? I know a few people who are probably smarter than I am, IQ-wise, but never graduated because they lacked the willpower/discipline of getting up and going to class.

Or, more precisely - they lacked the willpower to risk the social disapproval of their friends by going to bed at a reasonable hour instead of going to that awesome frat party/bar hopping/etc

Why did they lack the willpower? Probably because they did not care very much about the needs, wants and desires of their future selves. Or they didn't see the connection between discipline now and payoff later.

I think you guys mentioned once about a study that showed that kids who could delay gratification the longest ended up more successful later in life. That's the kind of test we need for college admittance.

Eric Jorgensen writes:

As a current undergraduate student, I can attest to the veracity of Cowen's claim: many undergrads students simply cannot write. Unfortunately, at my university, far too many of these students manage to pass their classes. I say unfortunately because, when they pass — and eventually graduate — the perceived value of the education I've received diminishes. It just doesn't reflect well on my institution when its graduates can't write properly in English.

Is this a recent phenomenon? Have writing skills, on average, declined that much?

Floccina writes:

In 10 years will the ability to write a coherent sentence be important?

tim writes:

I went to one year of college. After one year I analyzed my situation and came to the conclusion that the price/performance ratio didn't work. So I quit. Never regretted it.

It seems to me that you go to college to gain the skills for a (hopefully) productive career but colleges fail miserably in preparing students for this simple fact. Writing is important but I think that basic problem solving skills is more important. I know incredibility intelligent people who can write beautifully but can barely tie their shoes let alone do research, run a project, manage people, etc...

jb writes:

I think the ability to communicate clearly is valuable, whether it is in sentence form, powerpoint, video, flash animation or podcast.

If students 10 years from now cannot write coherently, they will have to have some equally effective substitute, because coherence and comprehension are the keys to knowledge.

dave.s. writes:

I put this in DeLong's and Cowens' comments, it seems to fit here as well: Largely missing from this discussion is the idea that half the kids are below average. Below 100 IQ. The Army has decided that it really cannot make an artilleryman of someone with an IQ below 92, and that's their cut-off. Still 35% below that. So no matter how much education some folks sit through, they won't get to a place where they can do high-intellect-demand jobs. It's not in their interest to go and indenture themselves for the next 25 years paying of student loans which have done nothing for them.

Tracy W writes:

Writing is important but I think that basic problem solving skills is more important.

I would hesistate to call tying shoes, doing research, running a project or managing people "basic problem solving skills". Extremely sophistcated problem-solving skills would be more relevant.

But I don't know how you can run a project or manage people, or spread the results of your research, if you can't write clearly.

Jack writes:

A few thoughts:

(1) College seems ideal for individuals who cannot otherwise signal their ability (people like Tim above must have some skill or talent that signals their work potential) or who want to go to graduate school

(2) Has anyone used a natural experiment to evaluate Arnold's question (sudden wartime for example? WW II?)

(3) Whatever happened to thriftiness? I cannot believe that for most people it is necessary to go in debt tens of thousands of dollars. In college, I only ate out twice (including cafeteria) and I didn't buy a car until I got a well-paying job well after graduation. I went to a decent, affordable public university with a scholarship and worked as TA/RA/copy boy as needed.

liberty writes:

I can write a coherent sentence, but after 15 years I still have not managed to graduate. Hopefully one day. One thing that is required is the ability to delay gratification and have a reasonable discount function, e.g. caring about "the needs, wants and desires of their future selves".

I can sometimes tie my shoes.

Les writes:

Most colleges have a lot to answer for. But student illiteracy is not a college responsibility.

Students should be able to read and write English by the time they graduate middle school and enter high school.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our colleges. It is in our primary and middle schools.

Lord writes:

One needs to compare not averages but medians and learn the distribution of salaries. Since those not attending are most likely on the lower end of the distribution, it may well not pay for them to attend.

Snark writes:
In 10 years will the ability to write a coherent sentence be important?

No less important than being able to read one.

Dr. T writes:
Eric Jorgensen writes: ...many undergrads students simply cannot write....

Is this a recent phenomenon? Have writing skills, on average, declined that much?

Yes, writing skills have declined that much. No, the phenomenon is not recent. I attended college in the mid-1970s. One of my many part-time jobs was grading the physics lab reports of engineering majors. Many of those students (at a fairly prestigious private college) wrote at a junior high school level. Not one of the students could write a grammatically and structurally correct paragraph. They often would change both tense and person within a paragraph. (For example: I put the cart on the track. The switch got pulled. Record the speed five times.)

When I first taught medical school in the early 1990s, I was dismayed (though not surprised) to learn that most students could not write a structured essay, even with an example essay in front of them. Most of my students told me they completed college without taking a single essay exam. Since doctors write many structured documents (progress notes, histories and physical exam findings, discharge notes, transfer notes, consults, etc.), the inability to do this well is a major shortcoming.

I have no solutions or suggestions. I raised the issue of poor writing skills at faculty meetings, but the dean and most faculty members were unconcerned. They believed the medical students would improve after practice. But, since no one pointed out bad writing, the students learned that poorly organized, grammatically incorrect, and misspelled notes were acceptable for medical records.

Lord writes:

With the recent movement to single income households, comparing a working graduate to a working non-graduate may also be out of place.

Dan Weber writes:
Note: != is a computer-language expression for "not equals"

Much as I love computer languages, we can say "Attending College ≠ Graduating College" thanks to advanced character sets.

Justin Bowen writes:
when they pass — and eventually graduate — the perceived value of the education I've received diminishes.

Hmmm, educational inflation?

Dan Weber writes:

As a note, the Atlantic article is now online:

jsalvati writes:

Late, but this seems relevant to the discussion:
The college graduates who take "high school" jobs are those that have poor skills.

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