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Working Hard or Hardly Working? Analysis Shows Decline in Studying Among Today's College Students

Jul 08, 2010

Researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks analyzed data from time use surveys given to American college and university students over a 40 year span. They found a significant drop in academic time investment across all types of students, suggesting that a decline in student input may be leading to a larger slump in productivity.

Modern College Students

What does the Millennial Generation bring to mind? Technology, texting, the Internet - and a short attention span. A recent study by researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks reveals that, when it comes to college students, the fears of parents and the press are true: Today's students study less.

Analyzing data from time use surveys spanning 40 years, Babcock and Marks found a shocking 67% reduction in the number of hours today's college students spend cracking the books each week. That figure even applies to the golden students with perfect SAT scores and flawless GPAs - the researchers found that the drop was broad-based, showing up across all student demographics, choice of major and composition of schools.

Why, if students are performing well, do the hours they spend studying matter? Babcock and Marks approach the question from the perspective of economics, which looks at 'hours worked' as a fundamental measure of worker productivity. They argue that 'hours studied' is a fundamental measure of academic investment, which is reflected in the 'human capital' value of education, a term that describes the nonspecific knowledge and skills that make someone a productive member of society. The logic is simple: If student effort is an input into the 'education production process,' then a decline in academic investment may reflect a decline in the production of human capital. Furthermore, the researchers point out that human capital effects the workforce, which in turn effects the economy. Students aren't just hurting themselves when they put less effort into studying - they may be reducing our productivity as a whole.

Studying or Surfing?

College Students of All Types Show Decreased Academic Investment

Babcock and Marks gathered time use surveys from four time periods, 1961, 1981, 1987-89 and 2003-05, restricting their sample to full-time students at 4-year colleges and universities. The 1961 study, 'Project Talent,' surveyed a nationally representative sample of students who were high school seniors in 1960. The data from 1981 comes from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which surveyed college students across the country at all levels, freshmen through seniors. For both 1988 and 2004, Babcock and Marks used the College Student Survey (originally the Follow-up Survey) created by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Conducted at a variety of colleges since the mid-1980s, the survey's respondents are 'on-time' seniors, or those who are in the spring term of their fourth year. Finally, Babcock and Marks used the 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which includes data from first-year students and seniors drawn from a random sample of the American student population.

Although the specific questions varied from survey to survey, each had a direct measure of the hours respondents spend studying. After adjusting for differences between survey questions ('framing effects'), Babcock and Marks found a steady decline in the number of hours that students report spending on schoolwork, from an average of 40 per week in 1961 to just 27 per week in 2003. The researchers emphasize the fact that this effect exists separate from the concurrent increase in students' time to degree, which is often connected to students taking reduced course loads, and would therefore be expected to lead to fewer hours studying. Because the researchers only included full-time 4-year students, the drop in academic time investment cannot be linked to a lighter course load.

Furthermore, the drop appears to be fairly universal across all students and at all institutions. Although students at liberal arts colleges tend to study more overall, they exhibited the same steady decline in study time as students at other institutions. And while the demographics of the college-going population have changed in the past four decades (there are more female students and working students, for example), Babcock and Marks found that demographics couldn't account for the difference. Controlling for variables such as gender, race, age and parental education, the decline persisted overall and for each sub-group. And while working students studied less than their peers, study hours fell progressively for each category of work intensity (including none), indicating that this group wasn't 'dragging down' the rest of the study.

Study Group

If increased time to degree, demographic changes and more working students can't account for the decline, then what can? Babcock and Marks offer a few speculative suggestions: Education production technologies may have improved (it takes less time to write a paper on a computer than on a typewriter), institutional standards may have evolved (dropped) to meet the evolving market for college students or income, tuition or other costs may have changed in ways that effected human capital decisions. However, the researchers caution that time use data alone can't lead to strong conclusions, and more research will be required to fully understand the 'why' of this phenomenon.

Babcock and Marks do offer two important implications of their findings. First, the drop in academic time investment by students suggests that the opportunity cost of time spent in college has declined. The researchers suggest that this aspect of the decline may lead to a better understanding of how and why people return to college - if the opportunity cost is lower, then it may be easier for students to attempt. Secondly, they reiterate the concern that a decline in academic investment is leading to an overall decline in the production of human capital - or a 'dramatic' and previously undocumented change in the way that human capital is produced in colleges and universities. If the latter is true, then we could be seeing a significant shift in the way that knowledge is produced and the role that higher education plays.

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