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No Time to Back Away from Access to Higher Ed

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Charles Murray's op-ed piece in Saturday's New York TImes has a core idea that is unobjectionable: job credentials should be based on what you can do and not where you went to school. This appeals to a core democratic value: success should be based on merit rather than identity or family background. We want to promote excellence, and we want to do so on the basis of equality not pedigree. But the Harvard and MIT educated Murray goes beyond this in arguing that most people just could never do "genuine" college level work.


"For most of the nation's youths, making the bachelor's degree a job qualification means
demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and
educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do
not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.

If you doubt it, go back and look through your old college textbooks, and then do a little
homework on the reading ability of high school seniors. About 10 percent to 20 percent of
all 18-year-olds can absorb the material in your old liberal arts textbooks. For engineering
and the hard sciences, the percentage is probably not as high as 10.

No improvements in primary and secondary education will do more than tweak those
percentages. The core disciplines taught at a true college level are tough, requiring high
levels of linguistic and logical-mathematical ability. Those abilities are no more malleable
than athletic or musical talent."

While Barack Obama is calling for more investment in higher education, including support for community colleges that provide wide access to post-secondary learning, Dr. Murray would have us return to the days when colleges and universities were either finishing schools for the rich or hot houses for the cultivation of only the 'real geniuses.'

Dr. Murray's analogy to athletic or musical talent is telling, but not in the way that he intends. Sure, most of our nation's youth will never be able to shoot a basketball like Ray Allen or throw a football like the Manning brothers. But does this mean we should make sports participation available only to those who have the potential to play at the professional level? Would Dr. Murray say, since musical talent isn't evenly distributed across the population and most will never play and instrument like Winton Marsalis, that we should give up on getting people to participate in choirs, bands and orchestras?

One of the great virtues of America's universities and colleges is that they provide educational opportunities to those who want to appreciate and understand works of art, technology and science, as well as to people who will go on to advance these fields with their own original work. Universities and colleges offer students an opportunity to acquire literacy concerning the sciences and economics, to develop a framework for understanding literature and politics. The multiple modes of access to higher education must be preserved and enhanced. I work at one of the highly selective universities that is expensive but that also has enough financial aid to make it possible for talented students to attend - regardless of their ability to pay. I've also taught at a large public university with huge lecture halls, and a small private art college where one learns by making. Giving Americans a multiplicity of higher education opportunities helps to create a more informed citizenry and a culture and economy more capable of thoughtful innovation. From the community colleges across the country to the large land grant universities, from the state universities to the residential liberal art schools, American institutions of higher education provide access to learning and promote achievement at the highest levels.

This is exactly the wrong time to give up on the goal of access to a college education that combines breadth with focused competence. But in order to make this goal a reality we will have to do a much better job of making secondary education meaningful for more of our young people. We will have to ensure that they acquire basic math, science, and reading skills, as well as inspiring in them a taste for cultural participation. That is a tall order, but it is a challenge worthy of our ambitions for equality as well as for excellence.