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.

1 comment:

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