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A Real Analysis of Real Education

by Anthony P. Carnevale - October 28, 2008

A Real Analysis of "Real Education" examines Charles Murray's elitist and economically unsound views on limiting access to college degrees.

Charles Murray’s recently released book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, essentially argues that earning a BA is a waste of time for many Americans because they are not able to perform BA-level work due to a lack of intrinsic abilities. Murray’s new book is fruit from the same poison tree that produced his racial theories of intelligence in The Bell Curve, published in 1994. In The Bell Curve, Charles Murray argued that low test scores among minorities were caused more by nature than nurture. In Real Education, Murray extends his argument from race to class --- this time he insists that differences in educational opportunity are driven by innate ability. He concludes that efforts to prepare the children from poor and working-poor families for a BA are doomed to fail because parental income reflects innate ability; children will inevitably inherit both their parent’s sub-par abilities and thereby their class status.

Murray asserts that we should reserve the BA for the top 10 percent of students. He argues that attempting to increase access to BAs is either futile or will force us to adopt lower academic standards, and concludes that a small share of students should be trained for a BA while the rest should be tracked toward vocational certifications. Presently, about 1.5 million BAs are awarded every year. In Charles Murray’s America, over one million people would be stripped of their BAs. Murray effectively proposes that we truncate upward mobility represented by access to a BA. Yet barring access to a BA for all but a select few would ultimately lead to the proliferation of education for elites for generations to come, a fundamental violation of the more generous tendencies of the American creed.   

It is tempting to dismiss Murray as a throwback who keeps exhuming the junk science of eugenics for its shock value. But he deserves to be taken seriously, if only because he represents an extreme version of a lingering set of biases shared in varying degrees by many Americans.  Murray is not alone in his cavalier dismissal of the abilities of other people’s children. Surveys show that Americans are of two minds on who should get a BA. The vast majority of Americans believe that their own children are qualified for college, but that other people’s children are not.  When asked if every child should aim for college, a majority of Americans say no. When asked if their own children should go to college an even larger majority says yes.

Murray’s views are a consistent thread in the history of American higher education. In the old days, you had to be rich, white, male, and Protestant to attend a selective college. Nowadays, you still have to be rich, and you also have to attend high school in a leafy green suburb with test prep. The exquisite tensions between the role of four-year colleges as bastions of privilege and as founts of opportunity continues to be relevant at a time when only 3% of the students in the top 146 colleges come from the bottom 25% of the nation’s family income distribution.

In all fairness to American colleges, they are stuck with the daunting challenge of reconciling our cherished values of selectivity in admissions with an equally strong commitment to upward mobility and diversity. At least American colleges have the decency to feel guilty about their elitism and offer scholarships to low-income and minority students. Murray, however, dismisses the cultural tensions between test-based elitism, upward mobility and diversity in favor of a no-nonsense exclusivity. Murray’s type of exclusion survives in every culture, less as a fixed idea and more as a resilient scavenger of ideas living off whatever cultural scraps come to hand. He contends that the working class and the poor don’t have the “right stuff” for college and should be herded into vocational courses. In The Bell Curve, Murray relied on lingering racial biases in American culture to make his argument --- in Real Education, Murray relies on class biases.

In general, Real Education ignores the cultural and political value of the BA in making good neighbors and good citizens in an increasingly complex global society. But my primary point of contention with Murray, and with those who agree with him, is mostly about the economic implications of their views.

In the United States, the distribution of money, status and personal power is increasingly determined by the distribution of access to education. With the death of the blue-collar economy, access to the BA is the preferred route, if not the only route, to middle class status and earnings. The BA is also the gateway to the graduate and professional degrees that confer the highest levels of personal empowerment and power over others. That is why young people and their parents flee vocational programs and aspire to the BA degree.

Since the early 1970s, those with a BA have either remained in the middle class or climbed into the top 20% of the income distribution. About half of those with some college but no BA have stayed in the middle class or moved up. The other half of those with only some college have lost economic ground as have the majority of those who ended their education with high school or less. Despite the evident role of the BA as the gatekeeper to middle class status and increased earnings, Murray attests that too many people are going to college. Yet the evidence shows otherwise as our projections from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (cew.georgetown.edu) reveal a shortage of up to 10 million BA grads within 10 years. Murray’s proposal is especially troubling at a time when blue-collar jobs that only require high school are disappearing and BA shortages are likely. He is clearly on the wrong side of economic history.

In Murray’s America, college education also becomes a device for promoting the intergenerational reproduction of elites, consequently dividing society into BA-haves and BA-have-nots. He proposes to truncate upward mobility for most of those who aren’t in his select 10% of BA worthies. Murray’s top 10% would be very elite indeed. If we limited BAs to the top 10% of SAT and ACT scores, those recipients would come from families with a minimum income of $175,000 per annum and average earnings at least twice that level. Ultimately, Murray’s America leads to the proliferation of education for elites only for generations to come, a fundamental violation of the more generous instincts in the American creed.  

Real Education posits that the current distribution of educational attainment is an inevitable result of innate ability. In The Bell Curve and now in Real Education, Murray insists on resurrecting settled questions. Psychometric literature is very clear on the relationships between race, class and test scores. A recent example is work that Eric Turkheimer and his team at the University of Virginia did to show that for most low-income students, there is no relationship between abilities measured in childhood and aptitudes developed by the time they are old enough for college. In other words, if you come from a poor or working-poor family, there’s a 60% chance that you won’t be able to “be all you can be,” because our stratified, segregated, and underperforming educational system will fail to develop all your talents.

Conversely, Turkheimer shows that measured ability among middle-class and upper-class youth during their childhood does predict developed ability when they are of college-age about 60% of the time. According to Turkheimer, most of the difference in the developed aptitudes among middle-class and upper-class college-age youth can be accounted for by measured differences in their innate abilities when they were children.

In Charles Murray’s America, the differences in BA attainment by parental income (shown in Figure 1) reflect natural endowments that parents pass on to their children. As the figure shows, 77% of youth from families with income above $402,233 get a BA, compared with 13% of youth from families with income below $26,640. This makes perfect sense to Murray. In his view, differences in educational attainment as well as class and race differences in opportunity are merit-based and inevitable.  

Figure 1: Educational Attainment by Parental Income

click to enlarge

In addition, Real Education ignores several other facts, including the evidence that a forced choice between merit and opportunity is a false choice. We can remain faithful to merit-based college admissions and still increase access to the BA. There are many young Americans from working class and low-income families who are ready for college, but never get college degrees:

Murray asserts that BA attainment is about ability, but the data says otherwise. For example, among students in the top half of the test score distribution in their high school graduating class, 17% or 560,000 do not get a two or four year degree within 8 years.


185,000, of these top-students who don’t make it, come from families in the second income quartile from the top ($50,280 - $83,000 with in 2005 a median of $65,512)


140,000, of these top students who don’t make it, come from families in the third income quartile from the top ($26,730 – $50,279 in 2005 with a median of $38,306)


106,000, of these top students who don’t make it, come from families in the bottom income quartile ( $26,729 or less in 2005 with a median of $15,000)

As shown in Table 1 below and in Figure 2 and 2a, equally qualified students have vastly different college-going opportunities, depending on their socio-economic status at every level. For example, among the highest qualified students (the top testing 25%), the kids from the top socio-economic group go to four-year colleges at almost twice the rate of equally qualified kids from the bottom socio-economic quartile.

Table 1: BA plus attainment rates by Socio-Economic Status (SES) quartiles and SAT/ACT* score bands for students in the 12th grade cohort.







1.) Top SES






2.) 2nd SES






3.) 3rd SES






4.) Bottom SES






National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS 1988-2000)  

*Authors concordance of SAT and corresponding ACT scores (2005).

Figure 2: Educational Access Among Equally Qualified Students by SES

click to enlarge

Figure 2a: Educational Access Among Equally Qualified Students by SES

click to enlarge

Murrays’ assertion that ability is fixed, immutable and class-based leads him to suggest in Real Education that we begin sorting students into those with and without BA abilities in the first grade. Murray assumes that schools have no effect in developing abilities and that we can pick future BA recipients in the early grades. But schools do matter, and there is lots of churning in academic performance throughout the K-12 years. Unfortunately, the effects of school quality do not favor disadvantaged students. Ability is broadly distributed in the early grades. But early ability gets sorted by differences in educational opportunity as students move through the social and educational gauntlet along the way from first grade to college.

For example:

Our own analysis of the longitudinal data on K-12 student performance shows that among students in the top tested quartile of ability in the first grade, almost 75% of the more affluent students will still be in the top quartile of their class in the fifth grade compared with only 45% of the students from less affluent families;

Among students in the first grade who aren’t in the top quartile of school performance, affluent students will move into the top quartile performance at more than three times the rate of equally qualified students from lower income families.     


Murray’s book is deeply flawed, but it has its uses. This healthy debate between the elitists and the populists is evergreen in American politics. Murray will start it up again, and that’s probably a good thing. Moreover, “Real Education” forces us to revisit a worthwhile debate about the value of higher education in a time of crisis, when confidence in financial markets is shaken and our status as a nation will depend largely on how well we prepare our work force to compete in the emerging global economy.


Herrnstein, R., and C. Murray. 1994. The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New York: Free Press.

Murray, C. 2008. Real education: Four simple truths for bringing America’s schools back to reality. New York: Crown Forum.

The National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS 1988-2000). Washington .D.C. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). U.S. Department of Education.

Turkheimer, E., Haley, A., D'Onofrio, B., Waldron, M., & Gottesman, I. I. (2003).

Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children. Psychological Science, 14, 623-628.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 28, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15429, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:19:44 PM

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