More on the College Puzzle

It’s been well established that college takes longer these days. Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks have identified (earlier, ungated version here) another piece of the puzzle: decreasing time investments. They found that “[f]ull-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2003 they were investing about 27 hours per week.” The declines were “broad-based” and couldn’t be explained by compositional changes. Both students who worked while in college and those who didn’t experienced declines in study time. The authors conclude that “if student effort is a meaningful input to the education production process, then declining time investment may signify declining production of human capital-or a dramatic and heretofore undocumented change in the way human capital is being produced on college campuses.”?(HT: Marginal Revolution)[%comments]


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  1. Amon says:

    The reduced time inputs between 1961 and 2003 are probably mostly a result of increased productivity through better technologies – i.e. internet research, graphing calculators, word processors etc.

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  2. Stephen J says:

    If a college (other than one of the most elite schools) really demanded that full-time students work full-time at their studies, prospective students would just go to other colleges. It’s the same problem as with grade inflation: no one school can draw a thin red line in the sand and hold it against the hordes who will be quick to migrate elsewhere.

    Will this new breed of college student be as literate, as knowledgeable, as skilled as those who worked 50% more on their educations? It seems unlikely. Even if we put it all down to working jobs to pay tuition (and the study seems to say that this doesn’t explain the phenomenon), it takes time and effort to learn or master difficult concepts.

    The most probable response by society? This will sound cynical, but I’ll bet on some combination of (1) blame the professors, (2) demand homogenized outcome measures, and (3) make sure the outcomes are watered-down enough so that most will make the grade. In other words, pretty much what we’ve done with the elementary and middle schools.

    I suppose we can always hope that the hive mentality encouraged by texting, facebook, twitter, etc. will produce a kind of intelligence that can solve difficult problems on the collective level – it’s either that, or let the small group of students who are not only bright, but do the work, become a ruling elite and just let the rest of the population pursue low-level vocational training…

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  3. Gregg says:

    One reason for this is technology. I went through middle school and high school during the 90s before the Internet really took off. I remember the lessons on how to conduct research in the library before the Internet and Web-based card catalogues were rich with information, and it was incredibly time consuming.

    When conducting serious scholarly research today, we have instant access to vast amounts of information. I’m not saying this explains the entire gap, but it probably accounts for a significant portion of it.

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  4. Honest Paul says:

    College degree doesn’t equal human capital
    I was wondering if there was anyone out there who, like me, got good grades in college but pretty much crammed for all of their tests, partied a lot and didn’t learn much of anything. I mean maybe it’s still fresh in your mind right after graduation, but I’m nearly 3 years out of college, and I feel as though, even though I graduated with a 3.5 GPA, I didn’t really learn anything.

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  5. Frank R says:

    A key piece of information would be how the number of hours has decreased for different countries. E.g. have students in China seen a comparable decrease.

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  6. Bostonian says:

    Americans pretend that almost everyone is smart enough and motivated enough to get a 4-year college degree when in fact they are not. To avoid flunking out more unqualified students than they do already (and losing Federal financial aid dollars), colleges lower standards so that less studying is required.

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  7. Andrew says:

    signaling. A degree is now signaling. To really get a good job you need a masters anyway, you just have to pay out $200,000 or so to get some paper that says you tried undergrad first. The rise in for-profit colleges, incidence of unemployed post-docs and Masters, decreased time spent studying in undergrad are not coincidental. Employers want signaling, and that is what they get. Hopefully those signals make awesome products.

    Also, @Honest, yeah, college courses are extremely disappointing. I took AP courses with the expectation that they were presented in a high school setting and thus were expected to be a joke. While instruction has improved, the amount of information expected to be consumed is pathetic. Which leaves…signaling.

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  8. Raymond says:

    Resurvey today and you’ll find Facebook/YouTube has eaten up at least an additional 10 hours of study time per week.

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