College grads and students of the ’40s and ’50s were probably average

I saw this going viral: Meta-analysis: On average, undergraduate students’ intelligence is merely average.

It got thousands of shares and hundreds of comments on Reddit, and viral on Twitter too:

It’s hard to overstate how viral this story went. I cannot remember the last time, at least over the past decade, that a study generated this much hype and discussion [1]. It shows how there is still considerable interest in the topic of IQ , as much as the media and popular culture insists IQ does not matter or is not real. But also, it went viral because it confirms what many people suspect to be true, or at least sounds plausible as true, which is that college has become dumbed-down and or that college grads today fail to measure up to earlier generations. Stories of coddling, safe spaces, and political intolerance has possibly lessened people’s opinions of higher ed, and this story confirms suspicions that college has become more infantilized and that today’s grads are unprepared for the hard realities of the ‘real world’.

From the article:

Background. According to a widespread belief, the average IQ of university students is 115 to 130 IQ points, that is, substantially higher than the average IQ of the general population (M = 100, SD =15). We traced the origin of this belief to obsolete intelligence data collected in 1940s and 1950s when university education was the privilege of a few. Examination of more recent IQ data indicate that IQ of university students and university graduates dropped to the average of the general population. The decline in students’ IQ is a necessary consequence of increasing educational attainment over the last 80 years.

My take on this is somewhat different. Contrary to popular belief online, except for state/local colleges and a handful of specialized institutions, such as CCNY, Caltech, or MIT, college was possibly more dumbed-down in the past, less meritocratic, and that college grads of the 1940s and 1950s were not much smarter compared to grads today, if at all. This claimed 15-30 point IQ difference is possibly due to conflating college graduates with enrolled college students (obviously not all students graduate), and differences or discrepancies of IQ testing today compared to in the past.

It says, “We conducted a meta-analysis of the mean IQ scores of college and university students samples tested with Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale between 1939 and 2022.” But the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) didn’t exist until 1955. There was a prototype or precursor to the WAIS in 1939, the Wechsler–Bellevue Intelligence Scale. They are similar, but the abstract does not specify if the Bellevue test was used.

Also, it’s hard to draw meaningful or useful comparisons between IQ scores of 80 years’ ago to today given how much things have changed, such as differences in test questions, re-norming (maybe due to the Flynn Effect), and also the past use of ratio scores. It’s a well-established observation that childhood ratio IQ scores tend to regress when compared to adult normed scores of the same cohort (e.g. a 170 childhood ratio score regressing to 145 as an adult). [2] Thus due to the Flynn effect and the use of ratio scores, IQ tests of the past overestimated IQs compared to today, meaning that someone who scored 120 in the ’50s would only score maybe 110 if tested on a modern test with modern norming.

Continuing, “Examination of more recent IQ data indicate that IQ of university students and university graduates dropped to the average of the general population,” and “the results show that the average IQ of undergraduate students today is a mere 102 IQ points and declined by approximately 0.2 IQ points per year.”

So which is it? Graduates or undergraduates? It’s not too surprising the mean IQ of undergrads–especially for non-selective colleges–is only 102 given that most high school grads subsequently go to college, in which the attrition rate is much higher (40% college completion rate compared to 90-95% high school completion rate). Now sample only college grads, and likely IQ goes up markedly. ‘Weeder courses’ are a thing. I think the 110+ figure has always been assumed to be true for grads, not merely students. I agree that due to socioeconomic differences, incoming freshmen of the ’50s were slightly smarter than incoming freshmen today, but not a full 1-2 standard deviations smarter. That seems too high.

A month ago I argued that college is possibly a more effective signal for competence today compared to in the past, which can explain why employers still so heavily rely on degrees for screening despite alleged dumbing-down and wokeness. I give the example of JFK’s Harvard essay, which would be considered laughable today but was good enough in his era to be admitted.

Here is what I wrote, which turned out to be prescient given the plagiarism scandal that followed a month later (and is still unfolding):

College was possibly more like daycare in the past, but for wealthy people. Cheating was rampant during the mid-20th century, and there were no standards of accreditation (colleges had the discretion of choosing whatever curriculum they wanted). Athletes didn’t even have to pretend to meet minimum academic standards, which didn’t exist. Without such accreditation or uniformity of standards, and with cheating and favoritism so rampant (affirmative action for rich white gentiles), employers had no way of knowing if college grads were competent or not, so they relied on connections for hiring or interviews and less on impersonal screening.

How smart were college grads of 30+ years ago, really, when there was such widespread cheating and plagiarism? This scandal is probably the tip of the iceberg going back a century. Given that the vast majority of these dissertations are not read, and or behind paywalls, or lost to time, it stands to reason the plagiarism would go undetected, unless brought under scrutiny like we’re seeing now. Due to better cheating detection and stricter standards, the completion of college today is a better signal of competence compared to in the past, which can explain why employers rely so heavily on degrees.

The authors conclude:

These findings have wide-ranging implications. First, universities and professors need to realize that students are no longer extraordinary but merely average, and have to adjust curricula and academic standards.

But my point is that they were not that extraordinary. Maybe at best slightly smarter but not 15-30 IQ points. Even so, this is the wrong approach. The authors seem to come to the opposite conclusion as most of the commenters, seeing such egalitarianism as a welcome development by making college more accessible. But lowering standards will only make credentialism worse, as bachelor’s degrees become insufficient, similar to how high school diplomas have become devalued and diluted. Instead, the focus should be on decreasing the dropout rate by abandoning the ‘college for all’ credo that leaves millions of students worse-off by not graduating.

Overall, I am skeptical of the above study. These boomers and older generations with degrees, like Jill Biden, never struck me as being that smart. It’s inconceivable to me that these people are a full 1-2 standard deviations smarter than today’s graduates. Same for the Harvard jocks of the pre-’60s era (before the floodgates were opened to Jews and Asians); did they also have 120-130 IQs? Doubt it.

[1] Or at least what can be inferred from the abstract. In the aforementioned link, there is no actual study. “The final, formatted version of the article will be published soon,” so this is the only information anyone has to go on. The actual study may answer some of the criticisms addressed here.

[2] The Outsiders | Grady M. Towers

Before examining Hollingworth’s findings, however, it is necessary to explain how childhood IQs are related to adult mental ability. As a child ages, his IQ tends to regress to the mean of the population of which he is a member. This is partly due to the imperfect reliability of the test, and partly due to the uneven rate of maturation. The earlier the IQ is obtained, and the higher the score, the more the IQ can be expected to regress by the time the child becomes an adult. So although Hollingworth’s children were all selected to have IQs above 180, their adult status was not nearly so high. In fact, as adults, there’s good reason to believe that their abilities averaged only slightly above that of the average Triple Nine member. Evidence for this conjecture comes from the Terman research data. Terman observed the following relationship between childhood IQs on the Stanford-Binet and adult status on the Concept Mastery test form T.