Bryan Caplan  

Who Are These Kids?

Gifts, Efficiency, and Social ... Welcome to the Police State...
About 10% of my enrolled undergraduate students literally do nothing in my class.  They attend zero lectures, do zero homework, and fail to show up for the midterm or the final.  Yet when I'm handing out grades, the official roster confirms that they paid their tuition in full.

I understand dropping out.  But if you're going to drop out, why not drop out officially, so you get a tuition refund?  Under GMU rules, students can only get a 100% refund if they drop before the second week starts.  But they can get a 67% refund during the next two weeks, and a 33% refund until the end of the first month.  Do students who do no work during month #1 seriously fail to ask for a refund because they imagine they'll turn over a new leaf starting in month #2?

The obvious explanation, of course, is that it is the parents of these errant students, not the errant students themselves, who would pocket any refund.  Students refuse to officially drop because they prefer to delay the day of parental wrath.  To make this story work, however, either (a) students who do zero work must be pathologically myopic, or (b) parents of students who do zero work must be perversely forgiving.


1. All my undergrad courses are upper division.  Are students who do zero work even more common in intro classes?

2. Are pathologically myopic students and perversely forgiving parents really the whole story here?  Or is something else going on?

Answers from students who did zero work in at least one class are especially welcome.

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Noah Yetter writes:

1. Yes. Much. (anecdotal from my time as an undergrad)

2. No. The biggest factor that comes to mind is that being enrolled in X credit hours qualifies you as a Full Time Student for a variety of purposes, including Work Study employment and some tax benefits. If you aren't able to attend a class or find it not to your liking, unless you can replace it with something useful you may be better off (in the short term) simply keeping it so as not to lose your status. Marginal Tax Rates strike again.

Jake writes:

Do students enrolled for 15 credits pay the same as those enrolled for 12 credits? Since you teach upper level courses, it's possible that students needing only 12 credits will enroll for 15 credits because there is no additional cost.

JC writes:

I have had students register and deliberately fail classes for student loans. In one case, when I encouraged a student to drop out to get his life together, he stated that he couldn't because he'd already used his loan money to move and couldn't pay it back. He failed, and then repeated the course the following semester and passed.

Laura writes:

I had a friend who forgot to drop a class and failed it because she had thought she already went through the process. I don't know if forgetfulness counts for a significant percentage.

Brian writes:


10% of a class as do-nothings sounds awfully high, especially for an upper-level class. I see very few do-nothings in my lower-level classes and I've never had one in an upper-level class.

More common is the do-the-minimum-until-the-midterm-and-then-give-up type of student. I think such students are fairly diverse in their reasons, though a struggle with the material is a commonality. Students like this frequently are planning to drop out, transfer to another school, or are in college for purely nonacademic reasons (to play football, for example). When this problem is seen in upper-level courses, I would tend expect the latter reason. Have you checked their sports backgrounds?

In any case, I think you need to take into account that a small but significant percentage of students go to college without any real desire to graduate but who also don't want to drop out. Consequently, as long as they pass enough classes to stay enrolled as full-time students, they don't care what happens in the other classes.

mark f writes:

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James writes:

Forgetfulness can only cover some of the students (I did that once!). Doing nothing to forestall wrath of parents can be less myopic than you've implied, depending on your goal. If you think the conversation about dropping out because you're miserable is likely to be unattractive, ruining your academic record and blowing scholarships can be an effective way to play a game with future you in which future you only has the option to do what present you wants. Gotta work that means rationality.

That's probably a smaller percentage of students than forgetful students though.

RohanV writes:

Why don't you ask some of them?

You know who the students are, and the school should have contact info for them. Why not call them up and ask a few of them why they signed up but did not attend?

JLV writes:

I agree that students who literally do zero work for a class may very well be optimizing in a second-best sort of way. This could be for financial aid reasons, but also to avoid triggering an end to Student Loan deferments, which occurs when you drop below half-time. This may also be true for students who start the class putting in effort but then stop attending lectures, etc. I think that it is probably much more likely that these students are receiving little to no family financial support as opposed to the "hiding out from mom and dad" reasons proposed by Bryan.

Gordon Mohr writes:

Some schools/advisors let students retroactively remove, or replace with no record, an 'F' in certain limited circumstances. (In hardship cases, they might even offer refunds long after the official deadlines.)

My guess is many are doing work in other classes – and thus not interested in the full drop-out – but somehow limiting the cost of an F by taking advantage of forgiving policies, post-semester, outside your easy observation.

In addition to some students earning full-time-student aid/loans/qualification-benefits, as mentioned by other commenters, other students might be so cost- and GPA-ambivalent (as perhaps from extreme wealth) that any number of Fs or even wasted semesters don't really matter enough to them to futz with the bureaucratic details. (The scions of ancient money, or some country's extractive elites, perhaps?)

V. S. writes:

Why would a student who did zero work for your class do work for your blog? :)

Buckland writes:

Student aid pays for not only tuition but also for room and board. So signing up for classes can give a "student" a semester of living expenses even if they don't end up going to class. Part may be grants, and even the loans won't have to be repaid for a while. So grabbing one last semester of largess before dropping out may be something that appeals to somebody who thinks long term financial planning involves determining whether they'll have enough money for rent on the 1st.

foobarista writes:

I got an "F" in an Operating Systems class that I quit going to as I couldn't drop it in time and was otherwise overloaded in my last semester before graduating. Since I didn't need the class to graduate and would still be "in good standing" GPA-wise, I didn't fight too hard to drop the class. With today's emphasis on GPA, I probably would have worked harder to do so.

(The irony is I worked in device drivers and RTOS kernel stuff for several years...)

At the time, there was no per-credit costs, so you were either taking classes that semester or you weren't.

None of my students are like that. When anyone like that shows up and wants to study actuarial science, we tell them to go study economics, or, better yet, political science.

Chris P writes:

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Tyler writes:

The theory seems to assume that Mom and Dad know that their child could have gotten the tuition refunded and care that they didn't. If I just had a child drop out of university, the couple of grand in forgone tuition wouldn't be the first issue on my mind.

RH writes:

When I used to go to community college, it was really cheap. I would get financial aid, which went to my tuition, and then they gave me the rest as a refund. If I recall it was maybe like $3K a semester in pure profit. I actually did stay and do the work, but I could have done nothing and still made money.

I don't think GMU is nearly as cheap, so it makes less sense here.

gene writes:

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Eric Falkenstein writes:

Be glad you aren't a high school teacher. The question would then be: why are you failing them?

Noah Yetter writes:

Also 10% is not a large number of students when we're talking about upper-division classes. Of the upper-division economics classes I took (this was not at GMU), maybe 2 had more than 20 students to begin with. Most had 10-15. One or two no-shows per class is not many.

Will May writes:

James wrote:
"If you think the conversation about dropping out because you're miserable is likely to be unattractive, ruining your academic record and blowing scholarships can be an effective way to play a game with future you in which future you only has the option to do what present you wants. Gotta work that means rationality."

Funny, I did that. But only because mechanical engineering is boring. I would never do that in an econ class.

Patrick L writes:

[Comment removed for crude language.--Econlib Ed.]

Jack Raia writes:

Lets not forget the perverse effects of the ACA. Apparently some health plans of parents will only cover college students when they are full time students. I believe that's 12 credits or more. If a student who starts a semester with 12 credits and doesn't like one of his classes and can't get into one he or she likes, will be forced to stick with the class that's not liked or else health benefits/coverage will be lost.

Brian writes:

"Also 10% is not a large number of students when we're talking about upper-division classes...One or two no-shows per class is not many."


Look at Bryan's post again. He's not talking about 10% of students missing each class. He's talking about 10% of students missing EVERY class and assignment. To me that's just cray. I've never seen a class anywhere with that many do-nothings, and Bryan seems to imply that's a norm for him.

ARajan writes:


As an undergraduate computer science major at one of the most selective colleges in the nation, I can tell you that this is unheard of in my experience. Some possible reasons for this discrepancy in our experiences:

1. The eliteness differential. GMU Econ is a great program, but the bar for undergraduate admission isn't as high. Consequently, a school like GMU would likely have more slackers than a school like mine.

2. Skin in the game. If students are being financed by their parents or the government, they are likely to behave like highly-leveraged investors or deposit-insured banks: they will take risks and express time preferences that they otherwise wouldn't.

3. Major. Economics is an easier major than computer science by most metrics, in most universities. Even you are quoted as saying, "Economics is the best paid of the easy majors". Thus, perhaps econ attracts more slackers than does computer science.

4. Nature and nurture. My major and my social circles are almost exclusively Asian-American and White. These two groups are comparatively intelligent and conscientious. Affirmative action exacerbates the differences in these traits between racial groups--in my experience, Asian students are by far more intelligent and hardworking than other students. Perhaps econ, being an easy major, attracts those who were admitted under the aegis of affirmative action and are therefore not as intelligent or conscientious.

Gosh, I really sound really pompous here, talking about how elite my school is and how inferior econ majors are...I mean no personal offence to anyone; I'm just an honest truth-seeker.

EclectEcon writes:

I've taught at the university level for over 40 years and have had VERY few complete "do-nothings" during my career (mostly at The University of Western Ontario). I expect I have had fewer than 20 out of nearly 20,000 student contacts in that time. However, I can readily imagine that some of the explanations offered in previous comments invoking student aid and health care plans have some explanatory power.

For me the more frustrating "do-nothings" have been those who sign up, attend class very little but do in fact show up for the exams and, not surprisingly, fail. It's all as if they expect to be struck suddenly with knowledge and inspiration for the exams despite doing no reading for the course.

Use of on-line quizzing like Aplia and MyEconLab has reduced this to some extent, but not entirely.

Lee Kelly writes:


Another explanation is just that school is far more boring and torturous to those students than you appreciate. Moreover, if those students didn't exist, then colleges would need to be even more boring and torturous than they already are, because what colleges do best is expose which students are willing to be bored and tortured to get a sheepskin.

I also wonder how many such students are severely depressed. They are of an age when self-loathing and suicidal thoughts are especially common. That is, they aren't just myopic. They know what the likely consequences of their actions will be, but they just don't like themselves enough to help themselves.

caryatis writes:

I was a zero student when I was 18 for a calculus class, because a) wasn't thinking about money at all, it was my parents'. I wouldn't have known refunds were possible either since I never looked at the tuition documents.

And b) psychological issues. I just wasn't confident or proactive enough to face the fact that, after missing a few classes, there was no way I was going to come back or be able to catch up if I did. It takes a certain maturity to be able to face your failures and deal with them productively instead of hiding your head in the sand.

Glen Smith writes:

Don't know if this is still true but in the late 80's and early 90's, it was an excellent way to get investment for your entrepreneurial efforts. For putting up a couple hundred upfront, you could get health insurance (stay on your parents plan), access to thousands of dollars of equipment and subsidized access to the information highway.

Hazel Meade writes:

There are probably a significant percentage of students who are only enrolled so they can collect the student loan money to live off of. Move to a new city, live off the student loans for a bit, thinking that they will get a job later or become musicians.

Also students who have to commute a long distance cause they haven't realized you need to live close to the school to make it work.

If you have to commute an hour to get to classes there will be many days where you just don't make it, and eventually, you just give up and stop going.

My sister did that. One year at UBC, for some idiot reason lived miles away from school, so she had to take the sky-train every day, but she wanted to live with the hipsters. So she midded half her classes, then she dropped out and started a rock band.

Terran Melconian writes:

I was in that situation once because my drop was not processed correctly. Fortunately I kept the carbon copy of the form so they honored it later, but that would never have been visible to the professor. I didn't realize there had been a mistake until an F came in, and I'm sure nobody bothered to go back and tell him it was actually a mistaken drop; I certainly didn't.

This can't be the majority case, obviously. Most of the people I knew who did not attend their classes - and I knew a fair number, including one I dated for a while - were just not firing on all cylinders. They were not able to make rational assessments of their situation or predictions about the future. My girlfriend at the time was later diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

I would say it's actually more prevalent in the upper classes, or at least equally so. In the freshman classes, almost everybody is able to pass and all eyes are on the new college students to prop them up if they falter. A couple of years later, people who were smart and got by their whole lives without working hard are starting to fail, and they're doing so in a way that gives them psychological problems they don't know how to cope with.

MingoV writes:

There were students in my medical school who never attended lectures. They came only to labs with mandatory attendance. All students had mailboxes; theirs would contain lecture transcripts and handouts collected by friends. They would pore over those documents and exams from previous years (unbelievably, on file in the library), and they barely passed courses. We called them mailbox students. I wish their foreheads could have borne the tattoo MAILBOX DOCTOR as a warning of their lack of learning. (This reminds me of the old, and all too true, joke: Q: What do you call the med student who graduates at the bottom of his class? A: Doctor.)

Grant writes:

It could be that they are foreign studnents who struggle with English/cultural norms around registering for classes. Perhaps some of them struggle with English, dont understand the registration process, and/or need to be full time to maintain their visa status. Also it may be hard for tuition paying parents to monitor their children's grades and tuitionpayment from abroad. GMU has a lot of foreign students.

Jambu Shambu writes:

Econ is an easy major? Which part the calculus or the econometrics?

LD Bottorff writes:

If the parents are paying the tuition, it is easier to spend time on the courses you are interested in than take the time to drop the course. It is easier still to play video games, do drugs, or whatever and face the wrath of your parents at the end of the semester.

Alex K. Chen writes:
The obvious explanation, of course, is that it is the parents of these errant students, not the errant students themselves, who would pocket any refund. Students refuse to officially drop because they prefer to delay the day of parental wrath. To make this story work, however, either (a) students who do zero work must be pathologically myopic, or (b) parents of students who do zero work must be perversely forgiving.

For me, that was the case (although my university doesn't give refunds). But it was also that I had social anxiety issues and wanted to delay the day of facing the professor too. Yes, the professor knew that I stopped turning in assignments. But at that point I was already so discouraged that I preferred to believe that he didn't notice it, even though he did (and it showed up in the grade in the end).

On side note, there were a couple of professors who did notice and who were reluctant to hand out a 0.0 so they just didn't assign me a grade.

I think this is often comorbid with depression/anxiety issues too. The psychology of severe depression/anxiety often makes people have a very very strong time-discounting function.

Daublin writes:

I did it one time because I had meant to sign up to audit the class, but had accidentally signed up for credit. By the time I realized the mistake, I had too many zeros to really get past.

That kind of accident cannot explain 10% of do-nothings, but it might explain a few.

Jane S. Shaw writes:

Could it be that the parents simply don't know whether their child is taking a class or not? When I had a child in college, as soon as he turned 18, I received no information, such as grades, unless he chose to reveal them to me.

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