Bryan Caplan  

Who These Kids Are

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Fab Rojas' response to my last post, reprinted with his permission.

I just read your post about the 10% of students who do nothing in a college course. They don't attend, take exams or other appear in any other capacity. I teach a lot of required classes and I'm the Director of Undergraduate Studies at my department, so I have a bit of experience working with these students. 

My observation is that most "no-shows" fall into two categories. First, many students have drug or alcohol problems. One of the realities of college these days is that a large minority of students treat it is a giant party. Unsurprisingly, many of these students are unwilling or unable to participate in their courses. Second, many students lack maturity. For whatever reason, they simply can't follow through on plans, or deal with challenging classes. 

A small fraction of "no-shows" do have legitimate reasons. A few genuinely believed that they dropped the course. Others have very serious personal challenges such as being the victim of sexual assault, personal illness, or a severe family problem, like having parents who are getting a divorce. 

The instructors who read the blog may wonder how to distinguish between these students. Physicians, or the campus health service, will usually provide a note on letter head verifying illness. Many campuses have "Student Advocate" offices for students who are having genuine personal problems. They are usually happy to provide verification, long as it doesn't violate confidentiality.

Brief reply from Bryan: Very plausible, but you still usually need student myopia and/or perverse parental incentives to explain why these students fail to officially withdraw from their classes, saving many thousands of dollars.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

My first year in college, and my first time away from home, I was very nearly one of these "do nothing" students. I did show up to take the exams, and I did write the papers required, but I put in the minimal effort, and my grades definitely reflected that "effort". I was drinking and engaging in other activities that were completely new to me. It took losing my scholarship after that first year to reset my priorities. I wonder how many students never get that kick in the pants and drift right through. 10% sounds about what I would have predicted based on the friends I had at that time.

Hazel Meade writes:

And then there's that recurring dream I have, where I just forget to go to lectures or do the homework all semester, and then suddenly remember that I'm taking the class the day before finals.

@Hazel: so true, this must be one of the most common nightmares among people that went through high education.

Yancey Ward writes:


I haven't been in a class with grading in over 20 years, and I still have that dream about every 3-6 months.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

@Hazel I still have this dream from time to time and I've been out of college now for almost 3 years. I'm sure many people older than I still have it as well.

@Bryan In my case, there was a semester where I was having serious personal issues (unrelated to drugs or alcohol). I managed to get most of the work done, but there was one difficult class where I was basically a do-nothing. I missed at least 80% of the lectures and homework, but I did take the midterms and exams.

I didn't officially withdraw because 1) I was on full need-based financial aid at a school where you pay a flat rate (not per credit hour), so there was no way for me to recoup any money (even if I had paid it to begin with). 2) I knew I could take the F (I actually got a D somehow!) and my GPA wouldn't drop low enough to put me on academic probation; however, if I had taken the W it would have dropped me to 9 credit hours, which you were only allowed to do once at my university and were immediately flagged for academic probation.

Vipul Naik writes:

I've had students who rarely show up to class, but they do show up to the midterms and final. There were only two cases where a student didn't show up for the final on time. In one case, the student had a serious health issue. In the other case, the student forgot the final time, and arrived within a few minutes when I emailed him about his absence.

Many of the students who rarely show up still end up doing decently on the course -- the median grade in my courses is an A-, and the median grade for students who rarely show up may be around a B, with the worst case typically being a C+. The students who don't turn up for classes still do study quite a bit for the tests. At least, enough not to fail ignominiously.

I think though that UChicago (where all my teaching has happened) is relatively unusual both in terms of the quality of its student body and the amount of care that administrators take to make sure students are appropriately enrolled. For instance, students can officially drop the course up to the end of the third week (for an eleven-week quarter), and they can get a Withdraw (appears on the transcript) any time before they see the final exam. There are also a lot of emails sent out by administrators reminding students and instructors of add/drop deadlines.

Floccina writes:

it is interesting to me that my state has some policies in the state university system that makes it more difficult for students to live at home while attending school. This increases some of the listed problems.

it almost makes one think that state schools are not run for the benefit of the parents, tax payers or students.

Duncan Earley writes:

I think the important signal for parents is that little Johnny got INTO collage and stayed there for some reasonable amount of time. That's their part of the bargain. "I got my kid into collage."

The signal of completing collage is much less important for them than it is for little Johnny.

Plus it sounds better when Mrs Jones asks if you say little Johnny is at GMU doing Econ rather than he dropped out after 3 weeks to smoke weed and drink coronas. Dropping out after a couple of years is what people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg do after all ;-)

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