Higher education and IQ

There’s a very interesting article in Quartz titled ‘Your college major is a pretty good indication of how smart you are‘.  Here’s how it begins.

Do students who choose to major in different fields have different academic aptitudes? This question is worth investigating for many reasons, including an understanding of what fields top students choose to pursue, the diversity of talent across various fields, and how this might reflect upon the majors and occupations a culture values.

In order to explore this, I used five different measures of US students’ academic aptitude, which span 1946 to 2014, and discovered that the rank order of cognitive skills of various majors and degree holders has remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades.

An important caveat: The data presented looks only at group averages and does not speak to the aptitude of specific individuals. Obviously there are people with high academic aptitude in every major and there can be larger aptitude differences between entire schools—for example the University of Chicago and a local community college—than between majors within a school. Also interests, which are not directly assessed here, likely play an important role in which major someone selects. One could argue that any one specific test and sample may not be an accurate reflection of the aptitude of specific majors, and this would be a valid point. However, this analysis uses five independent measures and samples of academic aptitude at different points in time—which include everything from tests of cognitive abilities to tests of academic achievement—showing these findings replicate and are quite robust.

There’s more at the link.

This also has implications for the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications.  From the article:

According to a recent Payscale college salary report, STEM majors tend to be the most highly compensated. That STEM majors have consistently had the highest average academic aptitude may also reflect the fact that STEM disciplines are highly complex and require such aptitude. Even scientists in the “hard” STEM fields (e.g. physics, math) tend to believe that these fields require brilliance or genius … Perhaps the STEM disciplines have always selected on academic aptitude and employers have rewarded that aptitude and skillset due to STEM’s usefulness in a variety of fields.

I found it particularly significant that in studies spanning almost three-quarters of a century, the correlation between IQ and choice of major subject(s) or field of specialization held true.  I would have expected automation, the rise of information technology and subsequent, transformative changes in many fields of study might well have required students with a different kind of personality or different aptitudes to master them.  Consider that architects, for example, worked with pens and pencils and drafting boards in 1946, whereas today everything is computer-based.  I would have thought that change would require different and/or additional competencies.  It seems that wasn’t the case.

On the other hand, the military is finding that young entrants who are skilled in computer games are able to adjust much more quickly to high-technology equipment and the new tactics it enables.  Drone piloting, for example, is a skill the Army is imparting to tech-geek soldiers, with considerable success.  However, until very recently the USAF had resisted training non-pilot-qualified personnel to operate drones.  I understand that’s changing now, partly due to the Army’s proven track record, partly due to a shortage of pilots willing to accept the change in career path that UAV operations entail.  Does this mean that to be a soldier today is somehow different from what it was in the past?  I beg leave to doubt that.  IQ has never been the determinant of a warrior, although more intelligent warriors might tend to last longer in combat.  The physical demands of that environment, and the necessity to kill one’s opponent, can’t be automated – or, if they are, when the batteries run dpwn, it’ll be back to the same old, same old!



  1. Automation allows architects and engineers to design faster and build lighter and higher performing products but we all still have the same Final Exam: Mother Nature.

    Nobody's opinion about the design means a darn thing if it breaks or (heaven forbid) kills someone when it runs in the real world. Then factor in trying to make a solution Sailor-proof! P-3s for OldNFO, the subs he chased for me..

    Plus, it is a different mindset and very literal.. In a lot of ways Terry Pratchett's Dwarfs are basically engineers at heart.

    I'm a 4th generation engineer on my Father's side and farther back on my Mother's, with two siblings who are engineers plus my sister's sons (architect and ME respectively).

  2. I have a degree in Computer Science, with a 20+ year IT career, and when I was in college I took some CAD classes (I needed the electives and have always been a tinker, so…). First night of class the professor says we'll get to the computers in time, but first we're going to learn pencil and paper – any monkey can be taught to use AutoCAD, and the companies I've been talking to aren't looking to hire monkeys. They want people that can think and understand what needs to be done, not just mouse drivers.

  3. I've worked for architects as a draftsman since 1986, long enough to have started with manual drafting, then graduated to CAD where I still work today. What Rick T said above is true, but building codes now require far more knowledge of the materials and how to sequence the construction then before. Back then, the magic 'incantation' for interior renovation – PATCH TO MATCH EXISTING passed on a whole lot of responsibility to the building contractor / builder.

    Insulation now on outside of building envelope to prevent heat / cold from getting inside where it causes problems for instance. Flashing the building to where water intrusion into envelope is eliminated over time. Rules and regulations of handicap accessibility are far more advanced as well – when I started, grab bars in bathroom stalls and a cup dispenser at the water fountain pretty much covered it for interior work. Now far more design is required to pass.

    Architecture is a technical field that really does not paid for the effort. Architects have three Masters – 1) the Owner / Client, the person who wants a product with the lowest cost possible. 2) the Contractor, the person who wants to build it for the least amount of effort and faster construction. And 3) the Architect, who builds up their reputation using the Owner's money and Contractor's skills. You deal with so many personalities so you have to be a real People Person, someone who can clearly communicate with all walks of Life.

  4. Interesting, but (and I say this as a History Ph.D. who scores at the top, though not 'genius' level of the charts), I'm always rather wary of those sorts of results. If people operated in a perfect theoretical bubble, they'd be a good predictor of the person's 'value' to an operation. But they don't.

    I am thinking of four engineers (civil, involved in power generation) that I know. All four are brilliant. Only one would I consider to be the sort of person who has been able to transfer that theoretical intelligence to actual results. He is not by nature a manager, but has figured out how to be a good one to get his job done and done well. People would jump off the bridge for him if he asked. The second is ADD/OCD with no sense of personal boundaries; the third consistently comes up with wonderful theories but applies the 60% rule, dumping the project for a more interesting one when it is 60% completed, leaving the underlings holding the bag. And the fourth is an utter, total bastard that no one will work with.

    Of course, the most competent 'best' man I know, has a high school education and would likely fail those tests, but if it all fell apart tomorrow, he'd be the guy who could get the system back up and running. I couldn't, nor could those engineers, not even the first one.

  5. I believe the data would show the Army has crashed quite a few more drones than the USAF. Even in the Air Force the loss rate of by pilots is much lower than by non-pilot trained operators.

    The USAF is taking top graduates from fighter and heavy school directly into the UAV programs.

  6. I worked with an M.E. at a surgical laser company in the late 80's, and our final project had him using 12 overlays on his drafting table. That was an articulated CO2 laser delivery arm with 7 joints.

    I kept pushing him to get CAD training, as all the engineering ads required familiarity with at least one CAD program, and most wanted two. (AUTOCAD was the minimum)
    He wasn't interested, and thought it would interfere with the creativity of the design process.

    He had to go to CAD school, on his own dime, before he could get hired again. Ended up learning several programs. This opened doors for him.

    He worked on the helicopter helmet mounted gunsight system. Told me it wouldn't have been feasible to do it on paper, there were too many angle changes needed to get the image to the pilot's eye.

    He worked on the laser powered paint removal system the US Navy uses for it's aircraft. It can remove the paint, and leave the primer. (I think it was demanded by the EPA, to limit contamination at the bases from traditional chemical paint stripping.) All that work, and they only bought two systems, one for each coast, IIRC. Vaporizes about 2 square inches each time it fires.

    He grew to love the enhanced abilities that CAD enabled in his work.

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