Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Murray's Prescription for the Obama Generation

It's a weird feeling when a lefty academic finds herself even partly agreeing with the likes of Charles Murray. But to my great surprise, he got it about 10% right in Sunday's op-ed in the New York Times. What should Obama do for his generation? Murray argues, undermine the "college for all" ethic.

Because it makes me happier, let me start with where he's totally off-base-- his major argument, that some people are simply unqualified to attend college and we're doing them a disservice by encouraging them to enroll. Of course this reeks of Murray's prior work, and also of opponents to affirmative action, who contend that we'll hurt black kids by admitting them to schools where they're in 'over their heads.' Plenty of empirical evidence, including a very nice study by Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda, disproved that notion.

I wish Murray would ask himself the question: what goes into making someone "drawn towards academics?" I guess he'd say innate intelligence, when of course I'd argue that preferences of all kinds are shaped by opportunities and experiences that are unevenly distributed. Kids who've enjoyed positive experiences in high school are far more likely to be eager to attend college than those who've not been well taught, well treated, or even respected by their schools. Are we surprised that young black men rarely ever find their way to the college classroom? Is it because they're not innately intelligent enough? Oh please.

But where Murray's got a least some of my support is when it comes to the need to bust up the perpetual myth that a bachelor's degree from an elite university alters the course of one's life, ensuring success. With the intense stratification of opportunity for higher education, it's near impossible to compare the outcomes of elite college-goers with the appropriate counterfactual-- otherwise comparable kids who attend college elsewhere. Sure, plenty of studies have tried to do this in quasi-experimental ways, but unobservables abound. Those differences, not accounted for yet likely meaningful, could well explain any notable differences in outcomes associated with attending an elite school. Only through a true experiment, where we can randomly assign some kids to attend an elite school and others to go elsewhere (I can actually envision this happening if only colleges had the cojones to join such a study and prepare for the results...). Let's be honest--what attending an elite school gets you is an elite group of friends, pure and simple. Any resulting wage premium is likely due to that, not a "better" education.

Murray, of course, isn't on exactly that page-- he wants to change labor market responses to the BA-- or so he says. My sense is that underlying his call for a move to certification tests is a strong desire to maintain inequality, and keep certain folks out of the middle class. Give them options that "interest" them, work they're "better suited for"-- if only it didn't sound so utterly self-serving...

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