24 August 2010

Education: Students Take it Easy

Stephen Kershnar
Colleges Students: Less Studying, More Recreating
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 23, 2010

College students are studying a lot less than they used to. An interesting issue is why they are and whether we should care about it.

In a study by Philip Babcock of University of California-Santa Barbara and Mindy Marks of University of California-Riverside found that students study roughly 40% less than they used to (14 hours per week versus 24 hours per week). Their study looks at the period from 1961 to 2003. They argue that the trend is a general one in that it can be seen across different types of students: those who work and those who don’t, every major, and different calibers of colleges (elite to bargain-basement). This is not a recent phenomena, most of it happened before 1981, suggesting that the pattern is not due to technological advances, such as the computer.

This difference is not due to students being more prepared. Babcock and Marks point out that there is little evidence that recent students are more prepared than earlier ones. The former do not have higher test scores when they enter college. For the 2007-2008 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education found that roughly a third of students needed at least one remedial class. At public two-year classes, this disgraceful number was 42%.

Nor is the difference due to lack of spending on college. According to the New York Times, the cost of college in 2008 was roughly $19,000 per student. This is $10,600 more than in other developed countries.

There are several explanations for the lesser effort. University of California at Berkeley professor David Kirp and fellow researchers argue that market pressures have caused colleges to cater to students’ desire for leisure. Kirp and company support this claim by arguing that student evaluations, which became popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, reward easier instructors and punish harder ones. On their theory, because many faculty prefer to spend their time on research and students prefer to spend their time on leisure, the faculty trade higher grades for better evaluations. Ohio University Economist Richard Vedder points out that in the period during which studying has dropped, grade inflation occurred. He notes that grade point averages have risen by half a letter grade during this period (2.5 or 2.6 to 3.0). Babcock and Marks note that they are hard-pressed to name a reward that faculty get for maintaining high standards. The penalties for doing so are clear.

Another explanation is that grades matter less than they used to. Stanford Economist Caroline Hoxby argues that the difference between the ability-levels of students at different colleges has increased over time, while the difference between the ability-levels of students at a particular college has decreased. That is, colleges are getting better at segregating by ability. Probably as a result of this, employers depend less on college grades in hiring than they used to and so students put less time in to getting better grades and more time into getting in to college than they used to.

There is some reason to believe that students who study more learn more and earn more. In general, undergraduates are not given an exit exam, so it is difficult to determine how much they learn in college, let alone whether they are learning less than they used to. However, there is some reason to believe that they are learning less than they otherwise would were they to study more. Studying more increases both academic performance (specifically, grade point average) and future earnings. Decreases in study time have been found to cause lower grades. Greater studying has been found to correlate with greater wages, although whether the former causes the latter is less clear. If extra studying produces valuable knowledge or skills, then less study time does cost both the students and their society.

I wonder if this is an issue that we should care about. After all, students are like the rest of us. They must choose between learning less and recreating more. For example, when we spend Sunday afternoon watching the NFL, we lose out on valuable learning time. I don’t there’s a right answer as to how much students should study.

The problem with this live and let live approach is that we are paying through the nose for public colleges and as such students’ studying time is relevant in our deciding whether we are wasting money. After all, people should feel free to improve their abilities in ultimate Frisbee, surfing the net, and sex, but they shouldn’t expect taxpayers to subsidize their doing so. Perhaps our money would be better spent on paying only for those students who study more or do better, rather than the indiscriminate grants and subsidies that currently bloat college spending.

One way to generate more studying time might be to have mandatory exit exams that would allow colleges to be measured and compared in terms of how much education they provide to students. Many colleges would feel the pressure from prospective students, employers, and alumni and respond by developing incentives for students to study more. Just as public school teachers in K-12 screamed bloody murder when exit exams were introduced, college faculty (myself included) and administrators would likely do the same. Some colleges might decide to opt out and they should be allowed to opt out, so long as they go off the public dole. If exit exams were made a condition for federal or state aid, taxpayers would be better able to see whether their tax dollars were being spent wisely.

I’m not sure that less student studying is a bad thing or that exit exams are a good solution, but less sure that the status quo is adequate.

16 August 2010

Fat People and Government Hostility

Stephen Kershnar
Should the government target fatties?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 6, 2010

In the U.S., the federal and state governments hate smokers but not fatties. They tax the hell out of the former, but not the latter. They sponsor harsh public-relation campaigns that vilify smoking, but not obesity or overeating. At issue is whether the different treatment is justified. Those who love freedom probably think that the government shouldn’t be in either business, but let us leave their concerns aside.

Consider the taxes and bans on smoking. Governments at the federal and state levels target smokers with a vengeance. For every pack of cigarettes, the U.S. government taxes it by $1.01 and the states often tax it more. For example, New York taxes every pack $4.35, which is the highest in the country. Thus, in New York, a smoker pays $5.36 in taxes per pack. Other lefty states like Connecticut ($3 per pack) and Massachusetts ($2.51) do the same. 394 colleges now ban smoking. These bans are spreading like wildfire. In 2005, only 18 colleges did so.

Smoking is less common than obesity. In the U.S., only about 16% of adults smoke daily and only about 20% smoke at all. In contrast, a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that roughly 34% of adults are obese. The rates of obesity are exploding. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that in 1993 only 14% of adults were obese. Among women, weight problems are getting out of hand. Roughly 36% of women are obese and 64% are overweight. The average woman now weighs roughly 165 lbs. and the most frequently worn size is a 14 (this is plus-size). Among minorities, things are worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) using 2006-2008 data found that black and Hispanic women are much more likely than white women to be obese.

What could justify the government’s policy of targeting smokers but not fat people?

Differences in heath-care costs do not justify different treatment. One 1997 study from The New England Journal of Medicine found that smoking reduces long-term health-care costs because smokers die early and a significant portion of medical costs are incurred by the elderly. That is, it is not even clear that smoking produces health-care costs rather than savings. In contrast, the head of the CDC, Thomas Frieden, estimates that obesity costs the country $147 billion per year (2008 figure). Note these figures are controversial.

Nor is the different treatment justified because smoking is more dangerous than obesity. A 2001 study by two RAND researchers Roland Sturm and Kenneth Wells found that obesity is more risky than is smoking. They found that the obese suffer higher rates of suffering from a chronic illness than do smokers. Chronic illnesses include diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart disease, and cancer. The researchers found that the obese also spend more on health-care services and medication than do daily smokers.

General disgust or dislike probably doesn’t justify the different treatment. First, it is doubtful that the government should target something just because people disapprove of it. Second, it is plausible that the majority disapproves of obesity more than smoking. Consider several studies cited by Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode. One survey showed that college students would prefer a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or shoplifter than someone who is obese. A second found that 90% of formerly obese individuals would rather be blind than return to being fat. A third found that obesity carries as much sigma as AIDS, drug addiction, and criminal behavior. A fourth found that roughly 90% of obese individuals reported humiliating comments from family, friends, or coworkers. While I could not find any data to support this claim, I suspect that smokers are not subject to as much or as intense disgust. In addition, consider the following thought experiment. Would you prefer your spouse be a thin smoker or an obese non-smoker? My guess is that most readers, and especially younger adults, would prefer the former.

The difference isn’t explained by harm to others. It is widely reported that second-hand smoke harms non-smokers. Less frequently reported is that obesity is contagious. A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if they have a friend who becomes obese, 40% if they have a sibling who does so, and 37% if a spouse does so. If this is correct, then allowing obese people into a school or workplace poses a risk to others. Perhaps the discussion of harm is too quick given the role of choice in the different types of second-hand harm.

Perhaps the difference is explained by the difficulty of change. Diets tend not to work. UCLA psychology professor Traci Mann and fellow researchers found that one to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets and that this probably underestimates the degree to which dieting is counterproductive. Even when dieting produces weight loss, Mann and associates found that it is not clear that this improves dieters’ health. In addition, Rhode argues, stigma is not an effective way to deal with obesity and in fact it is more likely to cause obese people to overeat than to eat less. Attempts to quit smoking are more likely to work. For example, a number of countries, including the U.S., have more ex-smokers than smokers. Smoking also appears to be under our control in a way in which weight is not. Rockefeller University Jules Hirsch and Columbia University researcher Rudolph Leibel estimate that 70% of the variation in people’s weight is inherited and that people can control their weight only within a relatively narrow range. It is unclear how this fits with the data about the skyrocketing rates of obesity.

Taxes are also an effective way to lessen smoking. For example, for every 10% increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes, youth smoking rates decrease by 7%. There is no indication that a similar policy would lessen obesity.

So perhaps what justifies governments’ decision to target smokers rather than fatties is that the former are more malleable. This assumes that the government should be in the business of telling people how to live their lives and this assumption is questionable.