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]


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.

Stephen J

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...



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.

Honest Paul

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.

Frank R

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.


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.


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.


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


College has always been like that, or at least in modern history. As Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University concept suggests ( the lasting impact of college learning has been, let's say, less than robust for many years, now.

I suspect that it takes longer these days to actually get a degree owes more to the commercial nature of modern colleges than to any real change in the students.

I also find the wording suspect. 40 vs 27 hours dedicated to class and studdying? If this is the case, I suspect it is largely due to the defacto 'requirement' of college resulting in people who have no desire (or reason) to be in college and the increasing admision numbers bringing in less and less qualified students. I also think this has to do with the definitions involved.

When I was in college, I spent (and still do) many hours reading research and trade periodicals that may or may not have had anything to do with the classes I was taking at the time, and I suspect many others spend a lot of time engaging in studdying that doesn't relate to actual classes.



Just ask how much time people spend playing video games and using social networking sites... there's the missing 13 hours!

Ronald E Noon

In 1961 the majority of college funding did not come from the students' pockets (or their parents' pockets), now tuition (whether from parents, or governments, of sigh . . . .loans) is greatest (by far) part of the college funding (excluding the really well-endowed colleges like Berea).
Students are in the driver's seat. When they whine the college administrations listen. Tough instructor -- outta here. More entertainment . . . look at the difference in student centers fifty years ago and now . . . sure.

ron noon

Megan W.

The semester schedule at many colleges has been reduced as well:

My parents, who graduated in the late 50s, report that they had Saturday classes and midterms after Winter (Christmas) Break. No January intersession, and a longer Spring term.

My classes ended a couple weeks before Christmas, and then I wasn't to start Spring Term until late January. The wise/efficient student took a Jan. class to gain more credits. Many chose vacation.


Higher productivity shouldn't be the simple answer. Students have better tools so should be asked to produce more. Are college profs up on the latest productivity tools?

Many math professors, for example, do not know what Wolframalpha does for you with Mathematica. The kids know, however!


It is so very sad what has happened at all levels of education today. Perhaps I just wasn't as smart as everybody else, but I studied morning, noon and night- there was required "BIG" not baby Bio,required two foreign languages,required "BIG" Chemistry,required, required and more. I learned so much I would go back and do it all over -and yes I would study even more! These poor kids are spending $200,000 and all demand A's for not too much work and lots of spoon-fed exams.
Sadly, law schools are going the same way. There comes a time when you do as said above have to spend time to solve difficult problems. Not every problem lends itself to internet research.


I would suggest from my personal experience in college (2000-2004) that this study is very much correct. Classes weren't requiring all of my time for a single major (and i didn't have to work) so to fill in the time i added a second major and this turned out to be the right choice as it helped fill in many knowledge gaps and kept me from wasting time (and large sums of money) sitting around or going out drinking.


I graduated college in 1994. The reason I finished in 4 years was the fact that at my university you paid by the semester no matter how many classes you took.

Meaining if you took 3 you paid the same as if you took 6 classes. Having to pay for an extra semester or extra year to complete the same number of classes that someone else did in 4 years worked quite well. I think like 95% or more graduated on time.


As a recent graduate, I can agree with this study--but I'd like to offer a possible reason. At many schools, the number of credit hours is capped at 16 or 17--essentially preventing a student from taking more than five classes a semester (15 hours), with maybe an additional single credit pass/fail course, or another class's accompanying lab. My school allowed you to take 18+ credits, but only with approval of entirely too many administrators/advisors, and also while charging you another fee.

So, say you're taking 15 credits, and most professors say you're supposed to spend as much time working outside the classroom as in in-- you've got 30 hours (only slightly more than 27). If you add in students who are full time, but taking four classes (12 credits) due to scheduling issues with internships, work, class availability, etc, you can probably see how it would be around 27 hours.

Like earlier posters said, I think technology also helps--my mother graduated college in the1980's, and still talks about how awful typing papers on a typewriter was. Word processing alone probably saves hours of time, not to mention the ease of searching library databases online.



I wonder if this is really a problem. My husband is a hardware engineer, and he's very fond of pointing out that most of what he learned in college courses is useless to him, and most of the knowledge that he uses now he learned on the job. He only graduated three years ago (and has been saying this for all three years), so it's not as if there's been huge changes is the knowledge required - it just wasn't covered in his college classes.

My degree is in mechanical engineering, and I found the same thing to be true when I was working.


Colleges don't exist to educate. They exist to grant degrees.

Why study for 40 hours if you can do less and get the same degree?


How about this: More people go to higher education now, so whereas before only the truly dedicated went, now less dedicated people go. The average drops.