August 23rd, 2010
04:48 PM ET

College students: less study, more leisure

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/08/13/c1main.berkeley.gi.jpg caption="'Students appear to be studying less in order to have more leisure time,' a report by a conservative think tank observes." width=300 height=169]

Warning to parents of college students: what follows may be disturbing and cause you to clutch your wallet.

As the parent of a daughter whose college semester began today my attention was drawn to research that found students today crack the books about 14 hours a week, down from 24 in the early 1960s.

[Full disclosure: Having some memory of my 1970s collegiate pursuits, I may have contributed to the downward trend; only in my junior year did I realize that spending time in that building full of books at the other end of campus might prove beneficial.]

The situation on our campuses apparently is so dire that the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, titled its report “Leisure College, USA.”

“This dramatic decline in study time occurred for students from all demographic subgroups, for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity. Most of the decline predates the innovations in technology that are most relevant to education and thus was not driven by such changes. The most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at postsecondary institutions in the United States,” wrote the report’s authors, Philip Babcock, an assistant professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara and Mindy Marks, an assistant professor at the University of California–Riverside.

Has college gotten easier? “So even though we lack the data to observe directly whether college has been ‘dumbed down,’ we are able to draw from the data a solid conclusion about university practices: standards for effort have plummeted—in practice, if not in word.” The AEI study suggests that the “traditional study time” rule – two hours studying for every one in the classroom – is a thing of the past.

What’s the solution? “High impact practices,” such as undergraduate research and senior capstone courses, “force students to spend more time and more engaged time with their work,” in the view of Debra Humphreys, vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities for communications and public affairs. But, she warns, “If we want to reverse the patterns of underachievement, these practices need to become common rather than rare.”

This seems a good place to mention another worrying report; the College Board warning that the United States is losing its position as a leader in the number of college graduates it produces. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the U.S. now ranks 12th among 36 developed nations. “The growing education deficit is no less a threat to our nation’s long-term well-being than the current fiscal crisis,” Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, said.

So what’s going on here? “Students appear to be studying less in order to have more leisure time,” the AEI report observes.

And what might that leisure time be? “A big driver is online multi-player games, helping students flunk out of college since the late 1990s!” declares “Evan,” responding to a review of the AEI study.

On the same site, “Tom C,” who identifies himself as the father of two college students, suggests that students join too many clubs and participate in too many extra-curriculars. “And, finally, I can't resist an old guy's lament: they drink too much. If you followed kids around and registered their behavior, you'd find that at least half are alcohol abusers...5 night a week sloppy drunks. It's tough to read Ricardo when you're hung over.”

A damning indictment is found in “The Five Year Party” by Craig Brandon, a former education reporter and a former writing instructor at Keene State College in New Hampshire. The book’s title is based on a statistic that only 30 percent of students in liberal arts colleges graduate in four years. Administrators, faculty, students and trustees of many colleges and universities no doubt consider their institutions exceptions to Brandon’s conclusions.

Consider these snippets: “The inconvenient truth is that only the best colleges in America still consider “education” to be their primary mission. . . colleges have been reinventing themselves using a business model, transforming themselves into Diplomas Inc., run by a new breed of college administrator more interested in retaining customers than in educating students. . . hundreds of college campuses have been deliberately transformed into havens of adolescent hedonism, where student misbehavior has become the norm and college administrators allow it because they don’t want their student customers to take their tuition money somewhere else. . . The hard work that used to be required has been eliminated because students said they didn’t want to do it. . . Colleges used to be a place where students who were getting an education took some time off to drink; they are now places where students who came to party spend a few hours a week taking classes. . . Although colleges would still prefer that students actually learn something during their time in college, it’s no longer required. . . The small minority of students who are engaged in the education process and really want to learn something in college—about 10 percent according to the National Survey of Student Engagement—can still get an education as long as they avoid the temptations to misbehave that the majority of students constantly toss in their way. . . At the other end of the college process, party schools have flooded the job market with tens of thousands of semi-literate, unemployable graduates who aren’t able to follow simple instructions.”

Given the expense of college, these reports may cause parents to worry about their investment.

Filed under: David Schechter • Education
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. K S Verdi, San Antonio, TX

    I apologize for my typos!

    August 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  2. K S Verdi, San Antonio, TX

    i have taken some of the most difficult classes possible, had very tough professors and been in classes where 3or 5 students were left to take the final. I don't know where this information comes from but let me tell you that at the university that I attend weeds those people who don't stufy out very quickly. Many fail classes and are never heard or seen of again. Once again I don't believe your findings to be true for all universities.
    A proud honor student with a high GPA who worked her butt off for it 😉

    August 23, 2010 at 8:38 pm |