Are Students Really Getting Stupider?

April 16, 2010

I was most proximally motivated to write this after stumbling on two of Thomas H. Benton’s essays—On Stupidity Part 1 and Part 2 —when looking for a link for him in my last post, though his articles are certainly not the only impetus.  I don’t know if I go a single day in academia without encountering people complaining that Students Are Getting Stupider.

Are college students really getting stupider?  Since when?  Compared to what?

The short answer: yes, but it may look worse than it is depending on your point of view.  And it’s not for the reasons that you may think.

Three Reasons

Long answer:  there are at least three reasons that it may seem like students are getting dumber, especially from the perspective of those whose job it is to educate them.

1) It only seems that way because of estimation errors.

Humans are incredibly bad at estimating pretty much anything.  Barring any hard data on how smart students “used to be,” we estimate.  And what do we use to estimate?  Our own experiences, which are highly colored—especially if the “we” in question are college professors (and professors-in-training).

graph

As of 2008, 55% of all US citizens over 25 have had at least some college education—that is, over half the population is or was at one time a college student.  At the same time, only 2.7% has attained a doctorate—this includes JDs, MDs, etc.; a little less than half of those are PhDs.  Moreover, as our good friend Dr. Benton himself would point out, most of those holding PhDs do not end up being tenure-track college professors for the simple reason that there are not enough of those jobs to go around to all of those who train for them.  So professors who are looking around at their students and wondering if they’re dumber than students were in “their day” are those who have managed to claw their way to the top of the pyramid scheme of academia.

Now, while I acknowledge that the people at the top of this pyramid aren’t necessarily the most intelligent people in the population—after all, I have kind of disingenuously avoided defining “smart” thus far, and really anyone who avoids grad school should be commended on their common sense—nonetheless these are people who are smart in the way that academia rewards, and have made it through multiple, successively more selective filtering processes to get where they are today.  So, at least in the ways that they tend to value, professors are in the “smartest” ~3% of the population.  Moreover, they have spent years and years interacting most closely with others in the upper levels of the pyramid.  The older people they know—other faculty, their friends (who are likely to be highly educated or at least intelligent as well), graduate students—are all really smart.  Thus, their “data” for how things “used to be”—their own experiences—suffer from a heavy selection bias; consequently their estimations for how smart college kids were in their time will be skewed toward the “smarter” end of the spectrum, making today’s kids look “dumber” by comparison.  That is, even if the average college kid (or average teenager, or whatever we want to get up-in-arms about) were no different than 10, 20, 40 years ago, the smarter and more academically-insulated the person is who is doing the estimating, the more likely s/he is to be biased in estimating the past.

2) They actually are dumber.

On average, that is.

I noted above that over half the population 25 and older, as of 2008, has had at least some college education.  That certainly wasn’t always the case.  Assuming you, Dear Reader, are over 25, back in “your day,” fewer people went to college—how many fewer depends on when “your day” was.

In 1950, only 6% of the 25+ population had obtained Bachelor’s degrees.  In 2008, that figure was 29%.  Educational attainment has expanded rapidly, especially in the last 40 years.  The more people go to college, the dumber the average college student is.

I know, I know—I’m totally confounding intelligence with things like socio-economic status / ability to pay for college, motivation or pressure to attend, preparation, etc.  Many of the kids going to college now who would have been less able to go in the past are women* (now more than half of college attendees) and minorities, who would have been just as smart in past decades but the bar for their entry into academia would have been very high indeed.  However, now nearly 1/3 of the US obtains a bachelors degree before 25, and over half have had some college—that latter figure means that it is mathematically certain that there are some people in college who are of less-than-average intelligence:  at least 5% of the population at large, or 9% of people who go to college before 25.

Note that I’m not saying this shouldn’t be the case, that “dumber” people than those who attended college in the past shouldn’t be allowed to do so.  What I am saying is that there really are people of lower intelligence going to school in greater numbers, because everyone is attending school in greater numbers.  The bachelor’s degree is the new high-school diploma; try searching for entry-level jobs on Monster.com—even simple administrative work.  Good luck finding something that does not require a bachelor’s degree.

* The name of the 1967 Census report on demography of college attainment is “Men with College Degrees.

3)  They arrive at college less prepared than in the past.

The third reason that college students seem dumber these days is that people enter college less prepared to do the sorts of things that their college professors (and graduate-student teachers, and adjunct lecturers…) did in their college days.  This was the main point of the Benton articles above, so I’ll mostly gloss over this point.  Common whipping boys for lack of preparation are the media, the kids themselves (“kids these days” are always a popular target), or even high school teachers, but the real problem is the constant and very rapid accumulation of human knowledge.  We can’t teach it all—but we try to, and the result is spreading kids too thin, beginning in elementary school or earlier.  Once upon a time it was possible to be a true polymath, but today it takes a lifetime to become an expert in even one little niche area of one field.  Prodigies may be able to achieve a few areas of expertise.  But the accumulated knowledge of the human race grows exponentially, so the portion that any one person can possibly know is constantly shrinking.  Why try to prepare students for everything when the result is so shallow?

So even the smart kids are arriving at school with less foundational science knowledge, poorer writing ability, fewer analytical skills, etc., because they’ve spent their K-12 years with a kitchen-sink approach to education.  For that matter, their college years will be no different; many of today’s college courses, especially at large, state universities, are huge lecture courses that reward cramming of massive amounts of information rather than deep learning of a few key concepts.

I feel like, after writing all of this, that there should be a point, but there really isn’t, beyond offering some explanations for a common perception—basically, it all comes down to numbers, or at least my three reasons do.  I’m sure there are lots more reasons why college kids are dumber than ever, probably involving video games, iPhones, or Twitter.

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4 Responses to “Are Students Really Getting Stupider?”


  1. My objection to Part 1 is this:

    I think the dumbest thing I’ve ever done and the thing that identifies me as “not smart” was to pay thousands of dollars for a useless Bachelor’s Degree that didn’t do me any good other than to (incorrectly) place me in the top half of that smartness pyramid.

    It’s a Catch-22!

  2. Allison Says:

    Nice breakdown.

    Your third point really drives home the increasing importance of teaching “habits of mind” or metacognitive skill over teaching facts. I think that students who arrive in college with these skills are considered “smart” by professors even if they lack specific content knowledge.


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