Bryan Caplan  

College: Easy Money

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According to Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, college students' weekly study time fell by 40% between 1961 and 2003.  The research is forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics, but here's a very readable popularization.  Their basic findings:
In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week--a whopping ten-hour decline... [T]he trend... is not explained by differences in the wording of survey questions, is clearly visible across a dozen separate data sets, and does not appear to be driven by changes in the composition of the college-going population over time. Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity.
Interesting details:

  • Students are spending most of their extra time having fun:
[N]ot only [are] college students are studying less than they used to, but... the vast majority of the time they once devoted to studying is now being allocated to leisure activities, rather than paid work.
  • Rising female enrollment isn't the reason:
[W]omen in recent cohorts studied more than men and that study time fell dramatically for both women and men.
  • Neither is rising wealth:
[A]dvantaged students from educated families appear to study more than other students. This, too, casts doubt on the theory that increased wealth and advantage have caused lower study time.
Fascinating, but there's one striking fact in the original research that's neglected in the popularization: The return to a college education is much higher in the lazy present than it was in the studious days of yore.
[A] "year" of college, as commonly used in wage regressions, would appear to be a nominal measure of time, the value of which has eroded. If full-time college attendance requires a smaller time investment than it once did, then the recent increases in the return to college may be larger than was previously thought.
Babcock and Marks could reply, of course, that the return to college would have been even greater if schools had maintained standards.  But the more natural inference is that studying is mostly wasteful signaling.  If one student cuts his effort by 40%, he gets low grades and looks bad.  But students in general can still cut their effort by 40% without noticeably impairing their future productivity in the real world.

P.S. Babcock and Marks admit that some key facts fit the signaling model, but strangely fail to take their own admissions seriously.  Further discussion coming soon.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
agnostic writes:

Meanwhile, 10th graders are spending boatloads more time studying in 2002 compared to 1980:


This fits in with signaling theory, too. If getting into college is now more of a way to signal that you're smart and hardworking, you have to take on a lot more work in high school or else the college won't let you in.

So perhaps the overall amount of studying, etc., is the same for people aged 14 to 21, and the main change is shifting the bulk of it from the college years to the high school years.

Matt writes:

Isn't it possible that a significant chunk of that "studying" time was allocated to acquiring information? With the advent of the internet and research techniques using online databases and computer library catalogs, the time necessary to attain the same level of quality information is greatly diminished when compared to sifting through card catalogs and running aimlessly through endless stacks? I'm not saying that accounts for the entire 10 hours, but it would not surprise me if that was not an insignificant factor.

agnostic writes:

To follow up on the economic point about returns to studying a certain number of hours in college, maybe students these days are not being rewarded more for doing less -- the bigger bucks you get from a college degree are returns not just to the laziness of college, but also to your overloaded mule days in high school, which were a pre-req for getting into college and taking it easy there. It could well be that the number of hours (or other measure of effort) being rewarded have stayed pretty constant, again just with the bulk of it shifting earlier in time.

You can tell that few people writing about this stuff have teenage / young adult children (if they have kids at all), and probably are not close to them in non-familial ways. Otherwise they would've immediately noticed that for kids today high school is the new educational gulag. (Remember to factor in all that pointless toil called "extracurriculars," tutoring sessions, college counselor meetings, etc.)

JLonsdale writes:

I don't think we should take seriously the way the authors dismiss women as a causal factor.

Women have higher C so we should expect them to study more than men. What they also do is raise the return to men's leisure time! We would also expect men entering an all female college to raise the return to women's leisure time.

AJ writes:

Does studying include research? I only ask because in 1961 to research a topic would have taken hours of sifting through books at the library, talking or calling friends who are knowledgeable, and going to see the professor. However in 2003 all this could have been accomplished with a computer with e-mail and the internet. As a recent graduate I will attest that a computer and the internet saved me hours and hours of studying.

Ted Craig writes:

If technology is the answer, it should take students fewer years to obtain a BA now, not more. But the average length of time to get a degree at even the most mediocre school keeps increasing.

Morgan writes:

Maybe college is just easier than it used to be, so the return to the last several hours of studying is lower.

Maybe the relative value of the degree - as opposed to the education - has increased, so that more of the utility of college is achieved by simply passing, as opposed to getting high grades.

Maybe the mix of majors has changed.

Maybe selectivity has changed, so that a much larger proportion of people who have no particular desire to excel academically are now in college.

William Barghest writes:

@Matt and AJ
your objection could be answered by considering a major such as physics or math which requires little literature searching at an undergraduate level. They did say the effect held for all majors.

"If one student cuts his effort by 40%, he gets low grades and looks bad. But students in general can still cut their effort by 40% without noticeably impairing their future productivity in the real world."

If education was always signaling why were students less efficient (more studious) in the past?

How do GRE subject scores look for the past 50 years? If the students know less, then either the questions will be noticeably easier or the scores will have gone down.

Hyena writes:

Matt, AJ, Will:

A little time studying the link would have revealed that the authors doubt the impact of technology because of timing.

I think the holistic explanation is that college is currently wasteful signaling because of the balance of college graduates in the population. College is popularized to an extent where it is a useful signal: not so rare that most employers find it beyond their scope, not so common that noise is too great.

Currently, only 35% of the population or the like has a bachelor's degree. When undergraduate education becomes the norm, signaling will shift once more to grades as students attempt to differentiate themselves to employers or graduate schools. You see this effect already in science, engineering and law.

William Barghest writes:

Perhaps students are more focused on building "organizational capital" by networking with their peers than nuts and bolts knowledge capital.

Michael Strong writes:

Universities are a government enforced cartel through the accreditation agencies, which are nominally independent, but in fact almost all government funding only goes to accredited universities (including student loans which follow the student) the representatives of which control the accreditation agencies. Because existing universities are highly subsidized by the government, either directly as state universities or indirectly through student loans, research grants, etc., there are significant barriers to entry for new universities, reducing competitive pressures. The existing universities who make up this cartel have no incentive to allow additional competition for students or federal dollars into their private club. I know people trying to start new universities who say that accreditation will cost at least $1 million, and quite possibly as much as $5 million, independent of the cost of university operations. It is not surprising, as well, that the U.S. Department of Education is "cracking down" on proprietary on-line education,

Presumably there is a market for authentic education that optimizes value added in the educational process, with demand for such a market coming from both prospective students and prospective employers. But entrepreneurs seeking to meet that demand are thwarted by the government-enforced cartel, thereby allowing the signaling system to thrive far longer than it would in a fully competitive market.

Steve Sailer writes:

Agnostic's point about how much more work it has become to get into a good colleges shows that the U.S. at the upper level is shifting toward the East Asian model of meritocracy. For example, high school is notoriously hellish for Japanese high school students as they go to private after-school cram sessions to get ready for the their college entrance exams. But once you get to the U. of Tokyo, or something lowlier, you get a 4-year vacation between the very hard work of being a Japanese high school student and the fairly hard work of being a Japanese salaryman.

Anthony Green writes:

This is absolutely fascinating. I went to Columbia, graduated in '09, and I have to say that the work ethic, even at school known for its difficult curriculum, wasn't particularly overwhelming. I think a huge part of it is high school burnout - the process of getting into colleges has become so difficult that once kids get in, they take as many shortcuts as they possibly can to get their diplomas and graduate with a decent average. Another explanation might just be the popularization of party culture - by my senior year, it was EXPECTED that you go out Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at the very least or you were an outcast. Either way, thanks for posting the article - great stuff.

Dan Weber writes:

Business idea:

Start some unaccredited colleges with the sole goal of translating SAT grades into diplomas.

SAT of 1100 (out of 1600)? You get a degree from Hammerstate.

SAT of 1200? You get a degree from Pavlov U.

SAT of 1300? You get a degree from Vandelay Institute.

Employers are wary of IQ tests, but college degrees are 100% A-OK!

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