Monday, August 30, 2010

Is college worth less because students study less?

(cross-posted at

A generation ago, a college degree was the ticket to a comfortable, upper-middle class existence. We believe, as a society, that more education means more income, and in general this is still true. The unemployment rate for college educated people is much lower than for people with less education.

But the returns on a college education have been declining for some time, even as costs have skyrocketed. A college degree is no longer a guarantee of a comfortable existence. Why is this?

Perhaps it is because more people are going to college -- and we cannot all, alas, earn more than average.

But the American Enterprise Institute released an interesting report this month claiming that part of the problem may be how college students spend their time. According to various time diary studies analyzed by researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, in 1961, students at 4-year colleges spent 24 hours per week studying. By 2003, this had fallen to 14 hours per week.

There could be many plausible explanations for this besides laziness. Perhaps students are working more to pay for school. Perhaps they have more family responsibilities. Perhaps, as the first in their families to go to college, they are facing other obstacles. Perhaps, as more Americans go to college, more people are attending schools that don't require as much study. Perhaps we are majoring in topics that require less study, or perhaps technology has made learning more efficient.

The authors look at each of these explanations, and find that most don't hold up. Students are working more, but even among students who are not employed, study hours have fallen. They have fallen among students whose fathers also went to college, and they have fallen within majors. They have fallen among students who attend the most selective colleges. While it is true that the Internet and word processing make writing papers easier, the bulk of the decline in study hours came prior to the 10 years before the 2003-2005 numbers. It really just appears that students are studying less.

Why? Given that students are paying so much more for college these days (in many cases shouldering staggering debts) you'd think they'd have more skin in the game. The authors posit that perhaps college has become a signaling device for employers -- the fact that you got a degree is more important in the job market than your actual grades. You can work hard in high school to get in, and then coast after that. Perhaps grade inflation contributes to this as well. If you know you'll get an A or a B in most classes, why put in more work, particularly if employers don't care about your grades?

These explanations make sense, but there's a problem with this trend because when you study less, you learn less. And the authors note that there's evidence that when you study less, you earn less too. Which would explain why the returns on a college education are declining.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Part of it is also treating students as the "customers" of an industry rather than as the "product". Customer satisfaction replaces quality control as the model.

hschinske said...

I would question how well college students tend to track their study time, and how easy it is to measure the results. It seems to me entirely possible that students in 1961 (when the culture was quite different) felt pressured to report far more studying than they actually did. (The anecdotes I have heard of college life at that time certainly don't support the idea that it was common to work terribly hard.) And of course, as the AEI report points out, this information is taken from several surveys that weren't necessarily using very similar methodologies.

I do remember thinking about this issue in college, when I was told that I ought to be budgeting two hours of homework for every hour I spent in class (for a total of 30 hours). That seemed like a horrendous amount to me, and I certainly never felt as though I was working that many hours (though I may have -- I don't think I really counted the all-nighters and such at their full value). I still graduated cum laude and was borderline for magna, and that was at a fairly demanding liberal arts college (Carleton). I suppose that was partly down to reading faster than most of my peers; in some ways I think I was more educated precisely because I had time for leisure reading that others didn't have. So I wouldn't say that time on task tells the whole story by any means.

Incidentally, I also worked about 15 hours a week (that I naturally did track). 10 hours of class (which I hardly ever skipped), 15 at work -- add 14 hours of homework and you're right about at a reasonable full-time schedule.

Helen Schinske

hschinske said...

Interesting discussion at One commenter said "I think we’ve pushed out both sides of the curve. The top students today are better than the top students a generation ago, but the bottom students today are worse than the bottom students a generation ago.

"I don’t know what this means for the average or median."

I think he's onto something.

Kirsten said...

Do you remember the Vietnam war and student deferments? That is the first ten years of the decline in study time. Professors felt an incredible pressure to give Cs, which kept a young man eligible for the student deferment, rather than Ds or Fs, which were not eligible for the deferment. For some unlucky students, that could be the difference between life and death.

Anonymous said...

There are many ways to explain this, but the simplest is supply and demand. The supply of college graduates is high relative to available jobs (demand). In other words, a college degree is no longer all that special.

hschinske said...

The period of the Vietnam war is, of course, also the period of students becoming far more involved in political protests and so forth, which I would think would tend to eat into their time quite a bit.

Helen Schinske

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Anonymous said...

I feel another reason college educated people have less of an unemployement percentage is that they are already willing to take steps towards improving their situation. Someone wouldn't be in college to begin with without a sense of needed to improve their situation. So, when they become unemployed, bouncing back isn't as hard: 1. they have the resources to connect with job networks. 2. the ability to see the big picture.

College is not perfect for everyone. It all depends on the field you are interested in and your goals.