Much Needed IQ Realism in the Anti and Pro College Movements

There’s a misconception by the pro-college crowd that college is a stepping stone to success, or, according to the the anti-college crowd, that skipping college will give you an invaluable head-start in life. There are caveats to both of these, and the immutable laws of biology are to blame. College is just another IQ test, albeit a very expensive and poorly designed one. Unless you’re in the top 5-10% or so in IQ, you will likely just ‘get by’ in college no matter how hard you study, nor will you become wildly successful if you choose to not go to college; you’ll just be average.

Those to the left of the Bell Curve will most likely drop out of college and end up being failures regardless if they go to college or not, so the best advice for these people is to simply not go to college.

For those who do complete college, the degree is more valuable than the acquired knowledge because having the degree signifies at least an above average intelligence and hence an above average ability to acquire nearly any skill, in what is known as skills transference.

From Phil Greenspun’s blog:

This blind spot is curious because there is a fair amount of evidence that many American college graduates learned little during their four-year sojourn. The book Academically Adrift, for example, cites data from a Collegiate Learning Assessment test showing that many students don’t improve much from freshman to senior year. Studies on students who were admitted to elite schools, such as Harvard, but elected not to attend have found that there was little difference in lifetime income attributable to actually attending the elite schools (though being qualified for admission had a lot of value). There were some interesting additions to this literature at the conference.

Being qualified to get into an elite school signifies high-intelligence; such high intelligence carries benefits throughout life regardless if one actually attends the school. Those in the top 1% of IQ, such as Bill Gates, James Altucher and Steve Jobs, for example, have the capacity to excel regardless if they chose to go to college or not. Ultimately, we believe that independent of higher education, IQ is the ultimate determinant of success or failure, especially in the post-2008 economy.

The high-IQ folks without college fare better than the lower IQ folks with college, because smart people are better at acquiring skills and making decisions. Look at all these high-IQ teen and 20-something app developers who either have no college or dropped out and are earning thousands of dollars a month. Many IQ tests measure memory, such as reciting numbers, and studies have shown people with superior IQs typically have superior working memories. That’s how smart people do well in college and everyone else does poorly or drops out, because smart people excel at retaining the stuff that they read and then regurgitating the correct answers on test day. People of below-average to average intelligence don’t read much and quickly forget much of what little they do read. That’s why a person with a < 100 IQ will almost never get a > 3.5 GPA, because he simply cannot retain the necessary materiel in the allotted time – no matter how hard he tries.

But on the other hand, from Salon:

In reviewing the performance of more than eighty-eight thousand students, Hiss and Franks found that students who perform well in college were the ones who had gotten strong grades in high school, even if they had weak SAT scores. They also found that students with weaker high school grades did less well in college—even if they had stronger SAT scores. Summing up their findings they wrote, “Many of us who have spent our careers as secondary and university faculty and administrators find compelling the argument that ‘what students do over four years in high school is more important than what they do on a Saturday morning.’”

While there is a positive, but small, correlation between SAT scores (a proxy for IQ) and college performance, there are many instances of individual with good scores (Bill Gates and Zuckerberg, most famously) dropping out. These smart, high-scorers have the cognitive capacity to be college whizzes, but for various reasons they chose not to. But, as shown by the Salon article, SAT scores strongly correlated with wealth of the test taker. Some on the left argue that this is because wealthier families give their children an unfair advantage over poorer ones, resulting in higher scores for wealthier students. From Lisa Wade, PhD:

First, it is certainly true that children with more economic resources, on average, end up better prepared for standardized tests. They tend to have better teachers, more resource-rich educational environments, more educated parents who can help them with school and, sometimes, expensive SAT tutoring.

But what about the income of the test-taker years after completing the test? How do low-income high-scorers fare later in life? I suspect later in life that high-scorers earn more than low-scorers, when matched by income at the time of the test. If this is true, then it lends credence to the earlier argument that IQ, not college completion, is the best predictor of success at life, and the SAT is not only an intelligence test but a ‘future success’ test, versus a ‘rich parents test’.

But what about, as the Salon article mentions, the test takers of wealthier families scoring better? Doesn’t that prove the test is invalid? Not necessary, the test could be measuring what existing data has already shown: IQ and income are highly correlated, that IQ is strongly hereditary, and therefore the progeny of high-IQ, high-income families are expected to get higher SAT scores.

In blaming rich people and trying to discredit the SAT, the left does a disservice to the thousands of smart, poor students who do score well and benefit from the SAT. Second, because the welfare left is so uncomfortable with the idea that some individuals are cognitively better than others, they want to make the SAT less like an IQ test and more like a subject test; this benefits rich test takers because they have more time and money to ‘game’ the test with studying and tutors, in the same way lazy rich high-school kids have their rich parents do their homework. That’s why GPAs for non-STEM are pretty much irrelevant, and thanks to the left’s war on biology, the SAT is going down that same path. The left’s inability to confront inconvenient biological truths that, yes, some groups of people are smarter than others does a disservice to the low income people they supposedly want to help.

Some on the left also assume that memorization, a must come at the expense of critical thinking when, in fact, those who excel at memorization often excel at reasoning, too. Typically, to have a high IQ means you must be above average at all aspects of intelligence, as a high IQ score requires scoring well on all of the components of an IQ test, although there are some exceptions such as ‘culture-fair’ tests.

The question is, why do we need to lie to ourselves and others about the role of IQ in success. Why do we need to spread false hope though bad advice; why isn’t the truth, and only the truth, good enough. By ignoring or downplaying the role of IQ in life success, both the pro-college and anti-college crowd are setting unrealistic expectations for their followers. High-IQ is not a guarantee of success, but it dramatically improves the odds, with or without college. Part of the HBD movement is about promoting intellectual honesty and scientific realism over reductive ‘environment/nurture’ based wishful thinking.