Bryan Caplan  

The College Fun Puzzle

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Question: If college is so much more fun than getting a job, why are irresponsible, impulsive slackers less likely to start college and more likely to drop out?

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Zdeno writes:

Some theories:

- College requires less effort than a job landscaping, but it is self-directed effort. A job provides structure and discipline on those whose disposition's need it.

- Irresponsible, impulsive slackers do go to college, but the bright ones can still pull it off. This was certainly my observation. Also, plenty of non-slackers drop out because they can't hack it even with 60-hour weeks.

College is a playground for the right side of the bell curve, which - to riff on your earlier post - is one of the reasons it's so much fun in the first place.

BZ writes:

Classes and studying are expensive in time and money, taking resources away from more efficient slacking and fun-having.

OneEyedMan writes:

The same self control issues that make school unpleasant also make it painful to defer gratification (in wages) until after college.

The jobs that colleges prepare you for may be boring to slackers in the same way that school work is to them.

B.B. writes:


Just because college is fun, don't be surprised that slackers drop out. Are they getting real jobs instead? Or do they spend years just doing nothing?

And you assume impulsive, hedonistic slackers drop out of free choice. How many get the boot? How many are "advised" to leave?

Finally, do you think there are majors that attract impulsive slackers?

Vinnie writes:

It's a problem of incomplete information. They drop out because college doesn't offer the level of fun and freedom they seek. Whether the alternative situation actually ends up being more fun is inconsequential. They don't like the college situation; they think a different one could be better, so they act. Some will regret it; some won't. I don't know which is more common.

Vinnie writes:

*I probably should have said "immaterial," not "inconsequential."

Norman writes:

Answer: They're more likely to go to State college and slowly fail my Econ course (after several retakes). Spending time on having fun takes time away from doing the busy work of classes, which causes students who are less efficient with the time they do spend on classes to drop out. That's precisely why a college degree works as a signal. It's still fun while it lasts.

As an alternative explanation, perhaps they find it difficult to borrow money / receive ongoing payments from parents for an activity they don't want to put work into.

Hyena writes:

I think Norman is right: they lose funding support. That seemed to be what happened to lots of slackers I knew in college; eventually, fed up with a lack of progress, their parents cut them off.

Willem writes:

And even between slackers there is peer-group pressure not to become a drop-out. Even if working less and partying more impairs your future earnings, you don't want to be the sole drop-out since that would also make you the economic outcast for the rest of your life.

I've seen them go from econometrics to economics to law to social studies just to finish a bachelor.

Hume writes:

The answer to both questions lies here:

"And you assume impulsive, hedonistic slackers drop out of free choice. How many get the boot? How many are "advised" to leave?"

They never start college because (1) they fail out of high school due to partying/slacking, or (2) drop out of high school voluntarily because they (erroneously) believe there is more fun to be had working a simple job without all the rules of high school/college.

It seems that you are perplexed by the situation. How could rational irresponsible pleasure-seekers not start college? Answer: we are not rational re: maintaining a level of pleasure/slacking. There is a level of self control required to maintain the slacking we seek. We must balance slacking (our ultimate end) with required action (the costs of obtaining the ultimate end). When we are 15-22, it is difficult for those whose ultimate end is slacking off/"having fun" to achieve the requisite balance required.

Stan writes:

Who said college was fun?

clay writes:

College is fun when it gels with your ambitions or personality type.

For others, college often conflicts with individual desire for autonomy and independence and ownership of one's own careers, and it is more of a suffocating paternalistic domineering aristocracy than a place where you have fun.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Irresponsible slackers are less likely to start college because the college admission process is work. Irresponsible slackers are less likely to finish college because at some point the college expects you to actually pass courses, choose a major, and complete your degree.
Your question implies that people as young as 16 and 17 (when college decisions and applications are usually made) are making rational decisions about what they are going to do with their future.
A good many high school students apply to and go to college because they are pressured to do so by parents and teachers. When they get to college and find little or no supervision, many fall to the temptation to party. Others, more academically inclined, fall to the temptation to postpone real career decisions in favor of chasing interesting academic work. Partying and chasing interesting academic work are more fun that finding a job.
Bryan, we all know what you're trying to do. You're still trying to pound home the idea that the value of college is signalling.

agnostic writes:

Impulsive people want to move frequently from one source of fun to another -- they've got a lot more playgrounds lined up compared to their more settled-down peers.

Therefore, they're less likely to start college -- this is only one playground to choose as the first for their after-high-school years. It's more or less the only playground for settled-down people.

And therefore, they're more likely to drop out -- they hit diminishing marginal returns quicker and are itching to move on to one of their many other playgrounds. Settled-down people have few or no other playgrounds to wander over to. The closest thing is My Semester Abroad during college, or My Year Off to Find Myself soon after they graduate.

Brad Warbiany writes:

Seems to me that most people who claim how much fun college is (myself included) go there on the path to somewhere else -- it's the ticket to mainstream corporate 9-5 existence. As far as the path from high school to corporate drudgery is concerned, college is a hell of a fun way to get there.

But what about the people who don't want to get there? Can they not find just us much fun, nearly the same lack of responsibility, by taking a crappy job and going out partying their butts off every weekend? I knew some folks who skipped the college route, and that's what they did.

Put simply, you don't *have* to go to college to have the fun that college offers. But if you're going to college already for other reasons (your career), it's a lot more fun than the corporate world that follows.

Charlie writes:

Irresponsible, impulsive slackers don't think college is more fun. So given a choice between college-work and job-work, they choose the option that pays for their effort or choose the option that is easier work.

Tom West writes:

If college is so much more fun than getting a job, why are irresponsible, impulsive slackers less likely to start college and more likely to drop out?

Wrong type of fun. College is fun in the "learning neat things, doing interesting projects, not having to worry about losing your job" kind of way. Not in the sit-around-and-smoke-pot kind of fun. (At least it isn't once one's grades arrive.)

Of course, this seems kind of an odd question coming from someone who has been fortunate enough to be able to be well paid to have (much of) that sort of fun until they retire.

Of course, it seems kind of obnoxious to then claim that far too many people are having that sort of fun and should go straight from childhood into the drudgery of work as quickly as possible. Feels a bit of "well, I've got mine...".

Troy Camplin writes:

College, qua college, was fun for me -- because I found intellectual puzzles fun. So I kept up the fun -- 4 years of undergrad in recombinant gene technology, 2 years of grad school in molecular biology, a year of undergrad English classes, 2 years for my English M.A., 4 years for my humanities Ph.D. This is the kind of "fun" that the irresponsible and slackers aren't interested in. Even if you go to party, you have to work hard enough to keep up the grades to stay in school.

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