what do college students do all day?

The Marginal Revolution blog covered an NBER working paper showing that college students put in less work than they used to. I thought it would be interesting to summarize the responses:

  1. Student body composition – there are more colleges than before and even the most elite ones have larger class sizes.
  2. Technology – the Internet + word processing makes assignments much easier to do.
  3. Vocationalism – If the only reason you are in college is for a job, and this has been true for the modal freshman for decades now, you do the minimum.
  4. Grade inflation – ’nuff said.

I vote for #2 and #3. If kids are, on the average, less academically able than before, it would take longer for them to complete the work. And having seen syllabi from eras past, they don’t seem to be much longer or different. It’s often the same work. Since the authors claim that it isn’t limited to specific majors, grade inflation can’t be the culprit. There are still hard majors that take tons of time, at least in principle (e.g., organic chemistry a lot of lab time, period).

My guess is technology and vocational attitudes plus the intensification of the elective system. Technology makes most humanities courses not time intensive (download readings, scan them, bang out a paper with auto-spell check). That gets you the minimum, which is fine for the vocational student. And as far as the hard majors go, the modern college allows you to  load up on easy electives so you can concentrate on time intensive courses. I also bet that with tons of AP courses and better college prep, you can get test out and get to electives faster.

Written by fabiorojas

May 4, 2010 at 12:57 am

Posted in education, fabio

16 Responses

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  1. What about Facebook/TV/Internet? Without procrastination tools, what else do you have to do with your time?

    Would be interesting to see how this has changed for all workers. I imagine we’re much more productive, but waste all of the benefits on



    May 4, 2010 at 1:22 am

  2. I suspect more students work many more hours while in school today. Partly because of the expansion of education to poorer families and partly because of the rising costs of college (and rising health care costs and declining wages that may affect parents’ ability to subsidize kids as well).



    May 4, 2010 at 3:50 am

  3. I’m at a business school. One of the differences I’ve noticed is that finishing a degree with a BBA alone isn’t enough. To get the really competitive jobs, you need to have worked part-time. Managed a conference. RAed. Chaired a club. Served on committees. Done student consulting club work.

    In a lot of ways, it’s the same dynamic we see with MBAs – it’s less about what you learn in class, and more about 1) the signalling involved with being selected into a given program, 2) the experience gained outside of the classroom, and 3) the networking opportunities that all matter to job placement.

    If the school I’m at is any indication, I’d guess that this decrease in studying is not being replaced with a commensurate increase in leisure – I think this may be a story about a change to the curricular/extracurricular work mix.



    May 4, 2010 at 7:23 am

  4. I think the last response is closest to what Rebekha Nathan would have said in her ethnography “My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student” (Cornell University Press, 2005).

    Students now have many masters. Tuition increases encourage students to work outside of college (and many of them see this as “experience for future employment) in order to balance budgets, and this detracts from their time for homework and does so without necessarily invoking the “kids are lazier now than in my day” gibberish. Moreover, college admissions boards SELECT students according to non-academic criteria now more than ever so who should really be surprised that they are more active in non-academic endeavors? In addition, between work and extracurricular activities, grade inflation and vocationalism make academics not the central part of a college education; academics are now only part of the bigger picture they are up against amid slow job growth and massive personal debt. Also, even low-grade athletics take considerable time. Consider too how cheating becomes a reasonable solution to a shared problem: too little time to do too much.

    Still, none of these individually makes a whole lot of sense; however, taken together, the constellation of factors is what punctuates their day-to-day lives … with a smidgen of texting and facebook around nearly every bend. -Nicholas



    May 4, 2010 at 11:40 am

  5. I think the responses above are right. In addition, from my experience this year, I can say that a large percentage of students at R1s are involved in athletics, and it is rather amazing how much time commitment is involved with these sports. These students miss many classes, and often have to take all of their midterms or finals late because of competitions. Their coaches seem to be incredibly demanding of their time. We’ve always had sports at large universities, but I wonder if a larger percentage of the student body is involved in sports these days? This may partly be due to Title IX, which resulted in the creation of many new women’s teams.



    May 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm

  6. A larger percentage of students may be involved in athletics these days but the vast majority of students are not (I am at an R1 with very active sports programs, including non-football and non-basketball). For the most part, I agree with Fabio’s and Thorfinn’s speculation. Based on my experience and conversations with faculty, students seem less able to sit still through a one-hour (much less two-hour!) lecture than they did ten years ago; the desire to spend long periods of time on tasks seems to be fading.



    May 4, 2010 at 3:20 pm

  7. Figure three of the ungated version of the paper he posts tracks GRE scores over time. In 1961, the averages for GRE Quant and Verbal were roughly the same, and the two steadily diverge from there, with quant scores rising and verbal falling (to an average of 450 today). Meanwhile, the subject scores have all risen slightly. Seem like students are learning the same amount of “facts”, and are better quantitatively but no longer have the vocabulary and “verbal” skills as before. This makes sense to me because there is no time substitute for reading, and struggling with, difficult texts, the best method I know for acquiring these skills.



    May 4, 2010 at 5:56 pm

  8. @Musa: Another explanation – more immigrant students?



    May 4, 2010 at 7:08 pm

  9. Hmmm….I do think, as many other commenters have said, that the number of working hours (and other family responsibilities) matters enormously. Many of my students are taking four or five classes a term while working 30+ hours a week and having responsibility for small children. I can’t imagine how they have time to get done even what they DO turn in.

    But I also think you can’t totally discount #1. It’s not that students are less capable (you’re right, that would make the work take longer). It’s that they have less of an idea of what work is expected of them in college. Many of my students seem to think that you buy books the way you pay the student activity fee–not because you actually are supposed to, like, OPEN them. I understand that students have always shirked work when they could, but it seems to me that my classmates would at least look at the introduction and conclusion of the reading assignments and thus be able to pretend they read them. My students–they’ve told me this–were never expected to read when they were in high school; they never took notes; they never studied. Why start now?



    May 4, 2010 at 7:47 pm

  10. […] a comment » In our discussion of college students, our guest, Nick, wrote: Moreover, college admissions boards SELECT students according to non-academic criteria now more […]


  11. mlarthur, and others–if you read the paper, it’s clear that this effect is coming from full-time students, who don’t work at all.

    As a recent College graduate; it’s pretty clear what we’re doing with our time instead–we’re on facebook, watching TV, texting, etc. Given the option to spend your time on so many other fun activities, the rational response to is to cut back on your existing ones–and studying is one of those. We probably sleep less than we used to as well, for similar reasons.



    May 5, 2010 at 12:07 am

  12. […] at Orgtheory considers four possible […]


  13. Thorfinn, Fabio, et al, consider that most of the decline had occurred long before the internet. See permutations for more of my thoughts.


    Michael Bishop

    May 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  14. Have extracurricular activities taken-off considerably since 1961? If so, then a “displaced time” model might explain some of the variation and change over time.



    May 6, 2010 at 11:21 am

  15. […] what do college students do all day? ( […]


  16. I tend to agree with #2 and #3, no longer are slide rules needed and many complex calculations and repetitive tasks are automated. At the same time I feel that many students are studying business, management and pursuing majors designed more for placement into a job rather than the liberal arts and sciences. These fields prepare students for many careers by developing the way students creatively seek solutions to a wide array of problems they may face in the “world of work”. I fell into this category as an undergrad at Illinois studying finance of all things, when in the “world of work” many finance jobs are increasingly filled by math or computer science majors who can solve problems and perform analysis on par with the best finance or economics major.



    May 17, 2010 at 8:20 pm

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