Intelligence and College

Imagine a high-school senior who is trying to decide whether to go to college. He walks into the office of his school's counselor and asks for help in making up his mind. The counselor knows that this student's grades are Bs and Cs, and that his motivation and industriousness are fine, but nothing special. He is considering some college majors that sound interesting to him, but he does not have a passion for any of them. In fact, as the counselor talks to the student, she discovers that what he really enjoys is working with his hands. The idea of sitting in an office does not appeal to him. But his parents have their hearts set on their son's getting a college degree, and most of his friends will be going to college next fall.

What information should the counselor give to the student to help him decide? We know what she is likely to say: A survey of high-school students revealed that more than 90% of them were encouraged by their high-school counselors to go to college. But what does this student really need to know?

Above all, he needs to know whether he can expect to do well in college if he puts in a serious, good-faith effort. And to know that, the student needs to understand the relationship between his level of intellectual ability and the demands of college courses in the majors he wants to declare. The counselor is not likely to give that information to him; she is unlikely even to possess it. Hardly any high-school counselor has such information, because publicizing blunt facts about the relationship of intelligence to success in college has been out of bounds for decades. In an age when everyone from parents to presidents urges every child to go to college, a simple truth is almost universally ignored: Only a small minority of high-school graduates have the intelligence to succeed in college. The refusal to confront the relationship between intelligence and success in college has produced a cascade of harms--to many students who try to go to college, to those who do not, to the system of higher education, and to the nation as a whole.

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Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI.

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