Friday, September 25, 2009

University Students Aren't as Intelligent as They Used To Be

 
It's a well-known fact that the average intelligence of university students has been declining over the past four or five decades. This is true in spite of the fact that the average university grades have been going up.

The decline in average intelligence is exactly what one would expect, as Razib Khan explains on his blog Gene Expression: College students are not as intelligent.1

Surprisingly, the typical student at my university doesn't want to hear this. You'd be impressed by the number of explanations they can come up with to refute the data. Maybe we'll see some of them in the comments. Are they scientific explanations?

You might also be surprised at the reluctance to accept the fact of grade inflation. The most common explanation for grade inflation is that today's students are smarter than those of the 60s and 70s and that's why they get higher grades.


1. This is not an argument against increasing the participation rate and expanding university enrolment. I'm in favor of that. Let's just realize that there are consequences that universities need to deal with.

The real question we need to address is gradation rate. In an ideal world, what percentage of those who enter university should graduate? Should it be 100%? 50%?

27 comments :

  1. "Surprisingly, the typical student at my university doesn't want to hear this."

    Which maybe proves the point. (?) I mean, a particular individual's intelligence is what it is, regardless of average of ones peers. But your relative ranking is higher if the mean is lower.

    IOW, it's a lot easier to get into the top 10 (or 20, or 50, etc) percent of the class (and so, be able to boast of that "achievement") if the mean has gone down.

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  2. Razib's argument seems solid, and is based on universities accepting a larger fraction of the general population. If you take the top 30% instead of the top 20%, of course the average within that taken sub-population will be lower.

    Is this controversial? Do your students not understand very basic sampling, Larry? Or are the objections mostly based on distaste (which I mostly share) towards measures of slippery variables such as intelligence?

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  3. Extrapolating from the total university student population to the student population at a single university is a stretch. While universities in general may be accepting a larger percentage of the population, a single university may be becoming more selective. If a university caps the number of acceptances it gives out a year, over time if the overall university eligible population doubles then it might be taking the top 5% instead of the top 10% it used to take. In other words, Larry's students are right to question with regards to their university. The data Razib presents can't be correlated to making a statement regarding the students at a particular university. You have to look at the data for that university to say anything.

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  4. Pondering> I can't intelligently comment on Canadian universities, but there appear to be (from admissions and graduation data) two sorts of policies in place for U.S. universities: Type 1 is very selective about whom they admit (ex. Harvard, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill) but has a very high graduation rate; Type two admits nearly anyone with a pulse and a C average or better, but graduates a much lower percentage of their students, at times less than half (North Carolina State, Ohio State, etc.). I can't speak to many schools outside of NC/SC/VA, because those are the schools that I've frequently and recently seen data for (I taught an SAT/college prep class at a HS in NC, and the students were to keep the updated data on a bulletin board for the school to see, along with mean SAT of students admitted). My surmise though is that more schools are adopting the "easy-in, easy-out" model of the second type, and many of those university students end up living on mom and dad's couch at 20. Graduation rates have climbed in some places too, which is in line with grade inflation if one assumes that the students are of the same of lesser intelligence on average.

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  5. Being a recent undergrad student at a large state school I'm not surprised one bit. I was at the top of my high school class and expected college to be much harder than it actually was. Not that it was easy, but it could have been easier had I chosen to go the route of many of my classmates (taking easier courses/choosing stupid, easy majors). However, I wouldn't be surprised if the quality of the top 10% or so of undergrads are of similar quality to those of the top 10% a few decades ago. However, throw in a massive number of unmotivated and largely apathetic students who just need to get any ol' BS/BA to satiate their parents and future employers who expect a college degree regardless of how unnecessary it may be and you will get our current situation of an average drop in student intelligence. Unlike the complainers, I just strove to be in that top 10% and everything has worked out fine.

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  6. Larry, are the university students poorly prepared for academic pursuits?

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  7. Infuriated> Larry teaches at by reputation is one of the top universities in the world so I don't think it would have a similar demographic change like a state university in the US. Some of the top public universities have become more selective. My point was that you can't look at the overall student population and comment about any particular school's student population. You have to look at them individually.

    Many state universities in the US were designed and built to expand the percentage of the population who goes to college, and they have succeeded in that regard. Improving retention and graduate rates while not lower standards is an important point but you are having a different discussion what you call type 1 places than type 2 schools.

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  8. It's a well-known fact that the average intelligence of university students has been declining over the past four or five decades.

    And how long have you been teaching? Le me guess: Four or five decades.
    Bah-de-BUM!

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  9. Am I the only one not upset by this? Note that this does not mean we should lower the grading standards, but I personally am encouraged by these findings, as this finding indicates that more and more people have access to higher education.

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  10. This is a pretty interesting finding. What's weird, though, is that if universities are allowing a larger percentage of high school graduates in (i.e. lowering their admission standards), then we should expect an increase in the variance of the performance of university graduates. I don't think Razib looked at this, but just eyeballing it, it doesn't look like this is the case. Perhaps the variance is stabilized by grade inflation/curving.

    But is this REALLY a problem? Sure, the MEAN performance of university grads will be pulled down by admitting more "low-enders". However, the top-enders still exist and go on to grad school, etc. I really only see this as a good thing, since it means that more people have opportunities to participate in advanced learning.

    I suppose one could argue that the inclusion of lower-range students harms the upper-range students by slowing down classes, making group work more difficult, etc. But, learning to work with and tolerate people who think differently than you is in itself a great skill to have, especially for high-achievers.

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  11. I think it's also important to point out that there isn't necessarily a strong correlation between grades and intelligence and/or ability. Getting high grades is a skill, and as such, not necessarily the definitive test of intelligence.

    Intelligence is hard enough to define, and even more impossible to evaluate on some simple alphanumerical scale (or even a sophisticated alphanumerical scale). Furthermore, the types of mental activity required to ace an exam are very different from mental skills for relevant/useful activities: we've probably all seen a 4.0 GPA honours student being a total disaster in the lab!

    That there is grade inflation is quite an apt observation; but perhaps some of it comes from the realisation that GPA is bullshit when it comes to evaluating a candidate for a job, for example - employers rely more on real work experience, and cramming for finals becomes less important in the fight to get a life afterwards. Since students are paying clients of universities here, the system must [slowly] adjust. It must becomes 'easier', else it would be harder for students to get real work experience or whatever they need to get employed later. And since an important measure of a university's 'quality' is the postgrad employment rate, they must cater to this.

    What worries me more than the apparent lowering of 'intelligence' is just pure apathy to the subject chosen for molestation. But again, that's but another byproduct of the way we run things here: almost any above min wage job requires a degree of some sort, even if it has absolutely no relevance. So people get one. They're there for the degree, not learning. And thus, if you're here for the learning, you actually get screwed by the smarter folk (who are NOT choosing an absolutely absurd career path like we are/did ^_^)

    More Conference Publications than A's,

    -Psi-

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  12. Is there an online WORDSUM test available?

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  13. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says.

    And how long have you been teaching? Le me guess: Four or five decades.
    Bah-de-BUM!


    No, you can't blame me for all of the lowering of intelligence!! I've only been teaching for three decades.

    Besides, what evidence there is, suggests strongly that the lowering of intelligence has been pretty steady since the 1920s and I wasn't even born then.

    I helped lower the IQ scores in the 1960s.

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  14. I really only see this as a good thing, since it means that more people have opportunities to participate in advanced learning.

    Yes, but very few of the extra students take any sort of advantage of those opportunities. They are more interested in extra curricular activities and doing the least work possible (although many work quite hard at the end of each semester in making up reasons why their grades should be adjusted upward).

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  15. College students are not as intelligent(1) ... (1) This is not an argument against increasing the participation rate and expanding university enrolment. I'm in favor of that.

    Of course. University professors favor education bubble. In other news, Butchers' Union does not favor vegetarianism.

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  16. Do your students not understand very basic sampling, Larry?

    Since they are (on average) progressively less intelligent, it stands to reason that they (on average) understand basic things less and less.

    To compensate without immediate repercussions to their jobs, professors inflate grades...

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  17. How much of it is that the increase in enrollment is from among those that can afford to go (financially) instead of from the smarter kids?

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  18. Here is what I've seen: students reading skills have gone down since I started teaching in 1991.

    Early on: I'd give application problems ("word problems"). The students who didn't understand what the problems were asking were almost always those who couldn't do the mathematics to solve the problem either.

    Now I have students who can do the mathematics who cannot read and understand the applications problem.

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  19. DK says,

    Of course. University professors favor education bubble. In other news, Butchers' Union does not favor vegetarianism.

    That's nonsense. University Professors are split on the goal of increasing enrolment. If I had to guess, I'd say that a majority are opposed to expanding enrolment.

    Undergraduate education is only a small part of their university responsibilities so they're not overly concerned about keeping busy. They think undergraduate education should be restricted to the very best high school graduates.

    Part of the problem with university education these days is that we are failing to educate students even when we have "under our control" for four years. The most obvious evidence of this is the number of university graduates who go out into the real world without having any idea how universities work or what they're all about, They lack this knowledge in spite of the fact they've been at a university for four years.

    One wonders what they were doing all that time.

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  20. "It's a well-known fact that the average intelligence of university students has been declining over the past four or five decades."

    In the words of Joe Wilson:

    "You lie!!"

    This statement is absolutely and completely untrue.

    I demand a retraction.

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  21. "You lie!!"

    Indeed - obviously not nearly as well known a fact as you're making it out to be.

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  22. That's nonsense. University Professors are split on the goal of increasing enrolment. If I had to guess, I'd say that a majority are opposed to expanding enrolment.

    Not it's not a nonsense.
    Most everything that one needs to know/understand about universities today can be deduced from one simple fact: ultimately, universities are run by professors to benefit professors. Everything else is secondary and represents merely developmental/environmental constraints.

    So there is no contradiction between individual faculty wishing for less students (which means less work) and faculty members as a national group that on several levels has a vested interest in the ever expanding student body (more students means more more money, more research, more money again, more professors and so on).
    This is a classic self-catalytic bubble. And as in any bubble, it results in the devaluation of the core values (e.g, creditworthiness in the case of housing bubble and ability to deliver and obtain good education in case of the education bubble).

    Undergraduate education is only a small part of their university responsibilities

    When undergraduate education is only a small part of educator's responsibilities, is it any wonder then that undergraduate education tends to be total crap?

    Part of the problem with university education these days is that we are failing to educate students even when we have "under our control" for four years.

    Yes, the failure to educate is "part of the problem" in education. :-)

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  23. Umm, forgot to include this note:

    I'd say that a majority are opposed to expanding enrolment.

    Now, that is. But here is an experiment you can actually do: go and ask those if they favor *reducing* enrollment. Right now and drastically (say, back to 30 years ago, which means 2X or more). Count everyone who is opposed to both expansion and reduction. Report the percentage. Come up with a descriptive name for this category.

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  24. "ultimately, universities are run by professors to benefit professors."

    Ah, that would be so nice and simple then!

    Once upon a time, universities were perhaps run by senior faculty and all the rest. Even then that's debatable - the the middle ages, the Church had a fairly significant presence there.

    Nowadays, universities are so heavily intertwined with various organs of our society that it's pretty much impossibly to pick out a single entity as being in control - everyone wants their hand on education and research, from companies to governments to influential individuals to social groups, etc. Everyone and their mother has some sort of contribution to the system, and therefore has a say in how its run. Professors are but pawns in the whole situation - glorified bureaucrats forced to sell their research in any way possible just to make it to the next meagre helping from a funding source.

    The university is no longer run by professors. And probably never was.

    Perhaps a major 'strategic' error was to treat 'professor' as a research title rather than a teaching one, as it is (or was) in some other countries. Although that's not surprising, considering how much teaching is [not] valued in this part of the world...

    But yeah, I wouldn't say the enrollment bubble benefits professors very much. They're sadly not particularly important in the whole grand scheme of things...

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  25. Just out of curiosity, is 'Charlie Wagner' the nutcase and troll who isn't particularly welcome in any blogs?

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  26. Shonny asks,

    Just out of curiosity, is 'Charlie Wagner' the nutcase and troll who isn't particularly welcome in any blogs?

    Charlie Wagner is an old friend from talk.origins days. He will never be banned or censored on Sandwalk. He's part of the entertainment. Enjoy.

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  27. "Charlie Wagner is an old friend from talk.origins days. He will never be banned or censored on Sandwalk. He's part of the entertainment. Enjoy."

    Thanks, Larry.

    You certainly have a lot more class than that "other guy"!

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