The Weakening Of College Credentials

Picture from The Audacious Epigone

The picture above is the result of a 10-question quiz given to (purported) college graduates from 1974 until last year, taken from the site The Audacious Epigone. That gentleman’s description and analysis of the plot should be read by all.

The GSS vocabulary test may be this, as discussed at the Inductivist. It is a series of 10 questions, each multiple choice, where one has to know the definition of these words:

Level 1: Edible (96.2%), Broaden (96.1%).

Level 2: Space (84.4%), Pact (84%), Accustom (82.1%), Animosity (77.9%).

Level 3: Cloistered (38.6%), Caprice (35.3%).

Level 4: Emanate (28.7%), Allusion (25.7%).

This was taken from the comments of somebody calling himself Jason Malloy. The percentages are the average correct responses, perhaps over the entire public and not just the graduates.

Now I take it as a given that every regular reader of this site would score 100% on this quiz, and would not be taxed unduly in the effort. Indeed, I take it that knowledge of these words (and the words used in the multiple choices) would be the bare minimum, and really below that minimum, for a college graduate. If you can graduate “college” and not know what allusion means, the degree awarded has little value.

There is a fuzziness to the plot not shown, which must be accounted for when we want to apply the results to the public as a whole. But we’ll take it rough and ready, and not read too much into it.

When we’re asked by some social service worker, or whomever, “Here, take this vocabulary quiz”, the average, and indeed more intelligent person, might become bored and rush through. Mistakes not related to knowledge happen. Which is why, the Epigone plotted nine or ten correct.

Four decades ago, 12% of the population had degrees. Today, 33% does. If, in the early seventies, that 12% roughly corresponded with the top 12% of the IQ distribution, then the 6% of the population that aced the Wordsum test would comprise 1 in 2 of those grads. If today that 33% roughly corresponds with the top 33% of the IQ distribution, then the 6% of the population acing the Wordsum test would be a bit more than 1 in 6 of today’s grads.

More or less, plus or minus. What’s more concrete is the increase in the public who have “degrees”. The Census bureau estimates in 1940 about 5% who had a Bachelors or higher, rising to about 25% in 2009. High school was completed by about 25% (by age 25) in 1940, jumping to somewhere north of 80% in 2009.

In 1940, one had to come from a non-poor family or be of high intelligence to graduate college. And we have all have seen the tests from the days of yore and know that the material that the graduates were expected to know then was of a much higher difficulty than today. Here is a test from 1912 for eighth-graders, containing a spelling test at least much more taxing than the GSS WORDSUM.

It is obvious that the material from 1912, even suitably updated for our current year (“Which president was impeached, and on what charge?”), would be too much for many enrolled college students today. The score for college graduates on the WORDSUM should be 100%, or very close to it, recalling the ambiguity in identifying college degree holders and the impatience with taking a boring test and so on. But in 1974 it was only 50%. And today it is about 15%.

Obviously, 1974 is after the turmoil of the ’60s, when the inflation in education set in hard. We can’t look to dates before this because of the GSS’s inception, but I can’t see anybody seriously arguing that something well north of (say) 95% of college students graduating in 1940 would not have aced the test. There would have been a tailing off after World War II, as we might expect, because of the GI Bill, but the sharpest descent began around 1968.

Just think:
the “first accredited women’s studies course was held in 1969 at Cornell” (Wiki). It was straight downhill after that.

The conclusion is obvious: the majority of college degrees are of little value in judging a person’s intellectual capacity. Inflation has set in with a vengeance. Given the push by our leaders for more to enter college—to get a “degree” and not to gain an education—the value of the degree will continue to decline.

In the limit and if our masters have their way, everybody by age 25 (or whatever) will possess a Bachelors degree. At that point, the degree is of no value in discriminating intellectual ability. How could it? Everybody, by definition, has one.


  1. Yawrate

    Those old tests were more difficult! Perhaps after learning to read, write, and do sums, parents let only their brightest kids continue. And in 1912 we were still an agrarian society. Once a child was able to work the farm why bother with more education?

  2. Christian Boyd

    I agree with you, but it’s rather unfortunate you posted this… on the morning of my graduation ceremony..

  3. Jim Fedako

    Yawrate —

    Then you are implying college adds no value anymore. In the past, those who knew the words were accepted. Today, with lower admission standards, those who do not know the words are accepted as well. And, in either case, college added no value — it did not increase the scores.

  4. Frederic

    What gets left out of these discussions are the cretins that now staff
    these institutions (present company excepted) with a concomitant
    intellectual alignment that’s reflected in the student body. The truth
    of the matter is these estates have become business centers, education
    a secondary objective.

  5. acricketchirps

    What are we doing reading blogs on our graduation days?

  6. Joy

    The same has happened in the UK. Exams which I sat were easier than those very old papers which we used to use for practice. Yet having been the last year to do O-Levels at Chorleywood, when the boys and girls schools were amalgamated in Worcester, The following year scored almost completely straight A’s across all subjects. Our year were not best pleased. It meant that having achieved an A meant less almost straight away. The college was equivalent of a grammar school and all students were expected to continue after fifth form. We were always quoted the statistic that only five percent of the population went to University. One of the lads told me I’d sold out because I chose physiotherapy. He went on to acquire a phd from Cambridge in economics. I also remember him saying that IQ tests should be required before people should be allowed a vote. The same lad was in the first GCSE year. He was very competitive with his fully sighted twin brother but was totally blind. That school has altered beyond recognition from checking the website. It will take years of reform to alter the current mess in education. Bringing back grammar schools is only the beginning. Reform needs to start at the lower end not at tertiary level.

    The dumbing down continued through to A-Levels which at the time were said to be harder than degree level in some subjects or as hard although presumably not in Maths physics and Chemistry, I imagine. The difference was only said to be the specialisation, lecturing as opposed to more supervised ‘teaching’ and duration of study being three years instead of two for A-Level.

    Now A Levels have also been made easier so that access to university was made easier. Course work now replaces exams even at degree level. Exams are an important part of testing calibre of a student. They need to have absorbed enough information and be competent in essay writing under pressure if they are to be dependable under any amount of pressure at work. Memory is no longer tested when exams are abolished.

    Physiotherapy was no picnic and I didn’t put my all into the studies. It took over ten years at work before I started to appreciate in a proper way what a valuable profession I’d chosen for me. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.

    While in India I met a truly beautiful girl who was totally blind. I advised her to take up photographic modelling unless she had some calling to do something else.

    The mess in higher education is just as damaging to the less bright, more so, in my view, as well as a host of other problems with it.

    As to my old head mistress who pushed the girls. She always said that being happily married was the ultimate goal. Despite all the feminist talk which was of a completely different nature than today’s rubbish but which took front and centre, she never lost sight of what was important.


    If you visit this link, you will see the breakdown of just what accreditation people are getting out there. Among the post-secondary fields of study, you’ll note “business” is numero uno by far. You’ll note big jumps in recent years in health-related degrees – the Boomers are aging. Among the 2-year folks, it’s the liberal arts, but remember, many of them are getting the first two years out of the way at the county and junior schools because it’s much cheaper and if they get good grades and their school has the right accreditation they can get big scholarships at the university level. I know quite a few people who’ve done that.

    K-12 education in America took a huge hit with the Mortgage Meltdown. The public grammar and high schools are dependent on property taxes. When those values take huge hits, revenues dry up, and teachers are laid off, and attrition goes unaddressed, and the demand for people to get degrees that require classical education, the humanities, the liberal arts, language, literature, music, and all that just dries up.

    Many of the the kids coming out of the high schools are ill-prepared, the state and county colleges and universities have to work with what they have, and the Great Recession and Mortgage Meltdown took a bite out of those systems as well, as the states lost revenue and had to help the localities in dire need at the same time.

    Meanwhile, we are importing more and more of our students, to meet demand in healthcare and STEM fields, which shows the problem lies not with the higher education system, but with the local K-12 schools who have been operating with the same model since the 50’s, while demand and supply, the kids themselves, their family and life situations, have vastly changed, and funding has been flat or down for years and years. We need to modernize our K-12 school system, a big national effort, like we did once before and once after WWII to great effect. It seems it needs to be done every half-century or so to keep up with the times.


  8. Anne O Neemus

    Several years ago when the producers of the James Bond films were running low on Ian Fleming stories they decided to go with a book by John Gardiner” Licence Revoked”. However they changed the title to “Licence to Kill” because the PR people told them a majority of the audience in the States would not know what “Revoked” means.

  9. Jim Fedako

    For fun, go to Google Ngram Viewer to see the usage of words in books through the years.

    While the words above have seen a decline, diversity is trending like a hockey stick, with fairness, social justice, etc., rising as well.

    Then there is gender, which seemingly comes out of nowhere to rise to Himalayan peeks.

    Have fun:

  10. Anon

    These words should be familiar to every US eighth grader, and not just the ones enrolled in a “gifted” program. By that time, they should have enough basic biology know which plants are “edible” (or more importantly, which that aren’t). They should have heard something about the Mayflower Compact (and the Pax Romana) and have the facility to deduce the meaning of the word “pact” if they didn’t know it outright. They should have heard something about nuns who were “cloistered” (secular educators at one time fearlessly mentioned the Church’s role in World History, without wringing their hands that they may be inadvertently endorsing a particular viewpoint). The students could be forgiven if they mixed up “allusion” with “illusion”, but they should have heard the word a discussion about an author’s intent. (The implication is that middle schoolers would have been required to read an actual book in preparation for class.)

    That said, Christian, well done. Onward and upward.

  11. Ray

    Years ago the egalitarians noticed that people with a college degree made more money than people without, so they decided that everybody should have a college degree. That’s why you have college courses in women’s studies and other fields of study that have no intellectual or technical content. It’s college for dummies.

  12. Milton Hathaway

    There’s more than a little smugness on display here. Much of which passes for intelligence is simply a good memory. Strong language skills can actually be an impediment in certain occupations that require creating a flow of abstract thought.

    Lacking a high level of language skills and possessing only a poor memory, I learned early in life to measure myself with an alternate yardstick. And then I found a profession that used the same yardstick, and lived happily ever after.

    Jim Fedako – Thanks for the pointer to Ngram Viewer. There be entertainment here. You can turn it into a game – pick a word or phrase, and try to guess the shape of the curve. For example, the word “queer”. But, to honor our blog host, be sure to set the smoother value to zero!

  13. Ye Olde Statistician

    Historian John Lukacs has something to say about inflation in degrees [and in much else] in his book At the End of an Age (2002) and less directly in The Passing of the Modern Age (1970). The basic notion is simple: the more of something there is, the less value each one of them has, whether documents or degrees. But we note for Mr. McJones’ benefit, that observations on the decline of education were made before we learned the consequences of inveigling people who could not afford mortgages into taking out mortgages.

    En passant, the state of education and the mortgage bubble highlight the hazards of confusing “association” or “correlation” with causation. Ray notes above that people with a college degree made more money than people without, so they decided that everybody should have a college degree. Similarly, the innumerate saw that people-who-owned-houses likewise had better income, more stable families, etc., and so decided to ensure that lower income people would be made to own houses, whether they qualified or not. It never seemed to occur to them that wet streets do not cause rain and they were engaged in magical thinking of asserting the consequent.

    In his essay “The Happy Days Ahead,” Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots.” This essay and its companion piece “Over the Rainbow,” both from 1980, are worth reading, as the rot was already obvious by then. (Heinlein had seen it in the declining quality of the fan letters he received over the decades.)

  14. Richard Hill

    There is no mention in the comments of the apprenticeship pathway into a vocation. It used to be normal for a boy to finish formal education at about age 14 or 16. Further education was on-the-job (even for medicine and teaching, many years ago). In Switzerland this is largely followed today. In some Swiss Cantons up to 80 percent of school leavers go from school to apprenticeships in many vocations. Dare I mention that Switzerland has one of the lowest rates of youth unemployment in the OECD. The real cause of our problems today is the false correlation between education and financial outcomes.

  15. In medicine, that still happens (the apprenticeship). It still happens in other fields, too. If you want to understand something, you must “See one, do one, teach one”; and Heinlein would not shake his head any more.

  16. Argh, I hit ‘enter’ too soon.

    In my mind, the problem is compounded by conflating ‘schooling time, particularly seat warming time’, with education. Education is personal and everyone gets the one they strive for. Since most don’t strive very much or hard, they get what they earned.

  17. Well, I’ve always wondered about standardized tests as measures of intelligence and/or education. For example, I looked at the sample test–all the word definitions were pretty straightforward in the “Inductivist” test (for me) except “emanate”, and I chose “populate” as the correct definition. If you look up the definition online, “populate” is not in any of them, and is barely akin to the Merriam-Webster definitions:

    “spring, arise, rise, originate, derive, flow, issue, emanate, proceed, stem mean to come up or out of something into existence.”
    All this is to say, maybe we should ignore standardized tests, since these are made up by people who would not, in general be able to pass other intelligence tests with any degree of distinction.
    And, I should add, the general level of knowledge and critical thinking has I would guess certainly sunk since the 1950’s (when I got my B.S. and Ph.D.)

  18. Gary

    If you can graduate “college” and not know what allusion means, the degree awarded has little value.

    When you graduate FROM college you should know the correct construction.

  19. Geezer

    When you graduate FROM college you should know the correct construction.

    According to the folks at Merriam-Webster:

    In the 19th century the transitive sense (1a) was prescribed; the intransitive (I graduated from college) was condemned. The intransitive prevailed nonetheless, and today it is the sense likely to be prescribed and the newer transitive sense (1b) (she graduated high school) the one condemned. All three are standard. The intransitive is currently the most common, the new transitive the least common.

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