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Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks write,

We find a 10 hour decline in the average weekly study time of full-time college students at four-year colleges in the United States, from about 24 hours per week in 1961 to about 14 hours per week in 2003.

I assume that this is an earlier version of this paper.

What sort of model can reconcile this with secular increases in college attendance and the college wage premium? Possibilities

1. A secular increase in credentialism, which would make you want to get a college degree with the least effort possible.

2. An increase in the efficiency of students, which allows human capital formation to be maintained with less effort.

3. Professors have failed to adapt to the Flynn Effect, so that many students are sliding by easily on the basis of ability rather than effort.

Call me an old fogey, but I am not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to today's students. My view, as you know, is that we are producing too many unskilled college graduates. It could be that this recession is killing off some of the purely credentialist employment, thereby punishing those college students who failed to acquire real skills.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Jason Malloy writes:

Professors have failed to adapt to the Flynn Effect, so that many students are sliding by easily on the basis of ability rather than effort.

Colleges now take in a much larger fraction of the population than five decades ago, so the average IQ of college students is actually now much closer to the population average.

The average college student in the 1960s was much more intelligent and suited towards academic demands.

Miguel Madeira writes:

A 4th possibility can be that college wage premium was explained not by what you learn in college but by the social connections that you establish.

SydB writes:

I imagine that in 1961 the universities did not have as many professors doing such "studies" work like this paper. And these professors need students to justify their existence (in addition to publishing such papers). And given my general opinion that those in "studies," which includes at least a portion of what passes for economics, can say almost anything and then justify with a few statistics and words, I'm skeptical about this paper.

Are engineering students really studying less these days? That seems absolutely absurd. My evidence is only anecdotal, but I know engineering students at UCSD and UC Berkeley. They don't have lives. The curriculum is significantly more rigorous since 1961.

Now it is true in my view that there are too many "studies" students just passing the time at the University. It was true in 1981 when I attended college, and it seems more true today.

Count me skeptical.

Matt writes:

As a student I would suggest number 3.

mark writes:

Even worse, that is a 40% decline!

mark writes:

Although anecdotal, here is a contrasting article:

John Jenkins writes:

I wonder what they count as "study" time. A large portion of the decline might be directly attributable to technological gains. After all, typing up assignments in a word processor is faster than hand writing them (or even typing them on a typewriter) and research is much quicker now when you can pull up images of books you need rather than having to trundle through the library grabbing the paper books.

joecanuck writes:

It wouldn't shock me if these findings were the result of increased student productivity.

Sitting passively in a lecture is mostly useless, so many students skip them (many lectures are just textbook regurgitation). A resourceful student who can't understand something in their textbook has lots of options. The information is probably explained somewhere online. There are online communities full of smart people who are generally willing to help. If all else fails a student can just e-mail their TA.

These resources weren't widely used in 1961 (did they even exist?)

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Anyone who ends up in or near government is "credentialist". This includes defense contractors or their subs. This is very big business.

The only things that matter to the GSA price list are level of degree and years of experience. This turns engineers and other skilled positions into a commodity. Good engineers do not make more than average ones, although some bad ones eventually get a bad reputation.

A degree plus moderate competence opens the door to a fairly comfortable low-energy lifestyle. I suspect there is a "credentialist" attitude at work in colleges, whereby you put in your time, get your papers and get your $100k salary.

SydB writes:

I think "Jeremy, Alabama" exaggerates a partial truth. I've experience with DARPA, DOD, SPAWAR, thinks tanks, Government Labs, Military Contractors, university researchers, etc (plus many years with commercial engineering firms building consumer products). All have a hierarchy of competence. There is a credentialist aspect to GSA pay scales but all of these organizations operate along meritocratic lines as well.

mdb writes:

I would go with a combination of 1 and 4

4) Proliferation of humanities degrees.

Although 4 would be the college's response to 1.

In response to SydB, there are many government agencies that simply pay you more because you have a degree - any degree. Think police, teachers enlisted military, etc.

Joey Donuts writes:

If productivity provides the answer, why does it still take 4 years to earn a degree?

JPIrving writes:

Seems to me that this is a case of averages hiding variation. I finished a stats degree last year in the engineering college at UVM (upper mid range school), not much free time, and the engineering kids were out straight.

I see no reason to worry, the last few decades have seen a slew of marginal students enter uni but they mostly segregate themselves into polisci, anthro and "the studies". The real work of unis (science) is probably at a peak.

mulp writes:

When I was a traditional college student in the late 60s, our financial aid package limited the work time to 10-14 hours a week. In the past decade, I've taken a lot of college courses and spent a lot of time with students, and most must work 30 or more hours a week, and the constant problem with course work is finding time for it within the constraints of their most important task: earning money.

I'm sure this is a reflection of the change in overall student demographics, but the other aspect is certainly a major reduction in the public perception that education is required for citizenship, as Jefferson et al believed.

The classes that required a major investment in study time were in the humanities, with a book a week being common for at least freshmen in all disciplines.

With the need to work to pay for college being so important, such classes seem irrelevant and in most cases are no longer required for a degree. But after all, when you are a Goldman employee, ethics and morality are not a consideration when serving the clients who seek out the risk of mortgages that will not be repaid.

In the science and engineering disciplines, hours of lab work were traditionally required of even firs year students, but that kind of educational experience is costly. So, when competing with MBA programs where earning a million a year is likely with training in thinking that earning profit requires no ethical or moral compass, teaching chemistry, physics, et al, need to be cost reduced given the mere hundred thousands in income for those graduates.

All those hours spent in labs in the old days gaining hands on experience in the methods of science and engineering are no longer needed because the jobs that need those skills can be outsourced to Asia and Europe.

SydB writes:

mdb: I was responding primarily Jeremey's broad language that easily morphs from partial truth to outright falsehood.

My twenty years of experience in military and commercial engineering finds no truth to the idea that engineering is a commodity. And meritocracy does play a role in the government and private sector.

GU writes:


"4) Proliferation of humanities degrees."

Not all humanities degrees are created equal. Classics for instance, tends to be very rigorous, requiring students to learn Latin and/or Ancient Greek, translate ancient texts, etc. Philosophy also tends to be rigorous, so long as the department is not co-opted by "Continentalists" pushing Derrida and other meaningless babble (which is not the norm in the U.S.).

The GRE statitstics bear this out:

For instance, engineering majors, even the highest scoring—materials engineers—score worse on average than Philosophy majors on the GRE. (Philosophy: V + Q = 1225, A: 5.1; Engineering—Materials: V + Q = 1223, A: 4.3)

On the LSAT, Philosophy majors score better on average than Economics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, and Computer Science majors. (admittedly, Physics and Math [counted as one major] score slightly better than philosophy)

Bottom line: categorizing all humanities majors as imbeciles, a common practice among engineering and science majors, is unwise. Some people who study humanities do so because they like it better than science & math, not because they couldn't handle it.

Cody writes:

Many students at state schools have full time jobs. If a student is working eight hour days plus classes plus study, which do you think will be cut in order to make time for the others?

George X writes:

The authors make it clear that the 14 hours doesn't count lecture time; I assume it excludes lab time, too. Still: 14 hours a week? That's 2 hours a day—I spent almost that much time in college just putting off studying.

The authors claim the phenomenon "does not appear to be driven by changes over time in the composition of the college-going population. Study times fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within every major, and at 4-year colleges of every type, degree structure and level of selectivity. We conclude that the change in college culture is real." If they're correct, that rules out many explanations posted above.

I wonder if there's a knee in the study-time curve right around where coeducation became the norm. In 1961, hardly any college admitted both men and women (I'm proud that my alma mater was an exception, since before 1900). By 2003, single-sex schools were basically down to Deep Springs and Bryn Mawr. In the paper, they claim that 8 of the 10 hours of decline happened between 1961 and 1981; I wish they had been able to bracket 1965-1975.

Anecdotally, I can assure you that college semesters in which I had a non-distant girlfriend involved far less studying than ones in which I didn't. Pile up enough anecdotes, and maybe (through some metaphysical composting process) it'll turn into data.

Since the decline took place over a period of 42 years, you should bear in mind that a yearly decline of just 1.3% would get us from 24 to 14 hours. If we accept the authors' assertion that 8 of the 10 hours of decline happened between 1961 and 1981, that's still only 2% a year. Either rate of drift probably wouldn't be noticeable to students and professors in the four years an undergraduate nominally spends in school.

The paper itself is only about 8 pages of double-spaced text, followed by a few pages of badly-executed graphs that should make the authors as embarrassed as the students ought to be. I recommend clicking through and reading it.

FC writes:

To the extent that college is a ticket punch and costs are up, a rational student might cut studying in favor of work (or even extracurriculars and leisure.)

Also there is optimization toward major courses. An engineering student would take a C in Composition if the reallocated study time will get him an A in Statics.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"4) Proliferation of humanities degrees."

I imagine that Humanities will require more time of study, not less: I imagine that in sciences you can understand most of the curriculum by logical deduction, after you learn the fundamentals.

In Humanities, because in many cases there is not a logical in the issues, you have to study every detail of the curriculum.

Probably this is the reason because it is more easy to take both 90-100% and 0-10% in scientific subjects than in humanities subjects.

Note - I am form Economics, a neutral land in the Sciences/Humanities thing

Chris T writes:

"I imagine that in sciences you can understand most of the curriculum by logical deduction, after you learn the fundamentals."

You would be surprised, most of the sciences require logical deduction AND a lot of memorization, especially biology. Even though physics involves solving problems using a common set of principles, the actual problems can take a considerable amount of time to work through while figuring out which principles apply where.

Jlonsdale writes:

I am a bit confused, didn't Arnold go to college in the 70's? 80% of the drop occurred between 1961 & 1981 while 20% of the drop occurred between 1988 & 2004. I would think that the difference between his peers and his current students aren't as large as the paper suggests.

In fact, the data suggests that women could be part of the reason for the change. Women study more than men on average, but the biggest change happened around the time of the largest increase in female college attendance. The presence of more women on college campuses give the males something better to do with their time. Those men who didn't change their habits to spend more time chasing girls could study less without falling behind. This same reasoning applies to the increased prevalence of people working while in college - more competitors working means that in order to remain in their place in the curve students could study less.

The 20% drop measured from 1988 to 2004 could very well be attributed to continuing drift/efficiency.

wintercow20 writes:

Maybe a little bit has to do with performance enhancing drugs. Seriously. A student of mine just did some good research on the use of ADD and ADHD drugs by students to study. He estimates that 15% of students regularly use them and a good deal more use them at some time or another.

My sense is that students substitute one or two nights of intense studying for a few hours of studying over the course of a few weeks.

That can't explain much of the observed decline from the linked paper, but I suspect it is a small (if interesting) part of the story.

ERIC writes:

I vote for #1.

You forget 99% of what you learn when you graduate and start your first job because a university education is not the same as learning a skilled trade. There is some merit to people who sceptically ask grads "what can you do with that degree?" How many people ask a plumber, carpenter or electrician that (job market prospects aside in both cases)?

I would add that when you graduate you think you know a lot of useful things but will likely find yourself doing very menial and simplistic work until you get "experience".

High expectations are quickly deflated by reality.

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