AEI's W. H. Brady Scholar, Charles Murray, delivered the first 2008-2009 Bradley Lecture on September 8. Edited excerpts follow. Video and audio of the lecture are available at www.aei.org/event1771/.
My new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, has two halves. The first two simple truths are that ability varies and that half of the children are below average. These deal with issues that are most important for K-12 education. The last two of the simple truths are that too many people are going to college and that the future of America depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
When high school graduates think that obtaining a four-year undergraduate degree (or B.A., in my shorthand) will help them get a higher-paying job, they are only narrowly correct. While it is true that the average person with a B.A. makes more than the average person without a B.A., getting a B.A. is still going to be the wrong economic decision for many high school graduates. Wages within occupations form a distribution. Young people with okay-but-not-great academic ability who are thinking about whether to go after a B.A. need to consider the competition they will face after they graduate. Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example, a young man who has just graduated from high school and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician or go to college and major in business, hoping to become a white-collar manager. He is at the seventieth percentile in linguistic ability and logical mathematical ability. He is exactly average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability. He is at the ninety-fifth percentile in the small-motor skills and spatial abilities that are helpful in being a good electrician.
He finds that the mean annual income for electricians in 2005 was $45,630, only about half of the $88,450 mean for management occupations. It looks as if getting a B.A. will buy him a huge wage premium. Should he try to get the B.A. on economic grounds?
To make his decision correctly, our young man must start by throwing out the averages. He has the ability to become an excellent electrician and can reasonably expect to be near the top of the electricians' income distribution. And realistically, he should be looking at the incomes toward the bottom of the distribution of managers. With that in mind, he discovers that an electrician at the ninetieth percentile of electricians' incomes made $70,480 in 2005, almost twice the income of a manager at the tenth percentile of managers' incomes ($37,800). Even if our young man successfully completes college and gets a B.A., which is far from certain, he is likely to make less money than if he becomes an electrician.
Let us now turn from money to job satisfaction. Our young man knows that he enjoys working with his hands and likes the idea of not being stuck in the same place all day, but he also likes the idea of being a manager sitting behind a desk in a big office, telling people what to do and getting the status that goes with it. However, he should face facts that he is unlikely to know on his own but that a guidance counselor could help him face. His chances of getting the big office and the status are slim. He is more likely to remain in a cubicle, under the thumb of the boss in the big office. He is unlikely to have a job in which he produces something tangible during the course of the day.
If he becomes a top electrician instead, he will have an expertise that he exercises at a high level. At the end of a work day, he will often be able to see that his work made a difference in the lives of people whose problems he has solved. He will not be confined to a cubicle and, after his apprenticeship, will be his own supervisor in the field. Top electricians often become independent contractors who have no boss at all.
The intrinsic rewards of being a top manager can be just as great as those of a top electrician (though I would not claim they are greater), but the intrinsic rewards of being a mediocre manager are not. Even as people in white-collar jobs lament the soullessness of their work, the intrinsic rewards of exercising technical skills remain undiminished.
Finally, there is an overarching consideration so important it is hard to express adequately: the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a seventeen-year-old might not yet understand on his own but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention. Guidance counselors and parents who automatically encourage young people to go to college straight out of high school regardless of their skills and interests are being thoughtless about the best interests of young people in their charge.