College students are working less hard, it seems

Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks report:

Using multiple datasets from different time periods, we document declines in academic time investment by full-time college students in the United States between 1961 and 2003. Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2003 they were investing about 27 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based, and are not easily accounted for by framing effects, work or major choices, or compositional changes in students or schools. We conclude that there have been substantial changes over time in the quantity or manner of human capital production on college campuses.

An earlier, different and ungated version is here.  A closely related paper, by the same authors, is here.


I find it hard to believe this data wasn't affected by changes in student body. In 1961, there were a select group of quite bright people going to college. These days pretty much anyone who wants to go can get in somewhere.

Do I get an A for this post.

If I don't, I'm going to the Dean. I paid good money for this edyacation.

As a current college student, I often wonder what people did with their free time and/or to procrastinate before the invention of the Internet and television.

I mean, I suppose "we did our work" is an answer, but I mean....that can't be right, can it?

Writing a research paper in 1961: Go to library, search through card catalogue, write down references and notes. Compose paper longhand. Type, edit, re-type on a typewriter. It was even worse if you wanted to include mathematics notation in your paper.

Engineering and science students had to consult logarithm tables in books and calculate using their slide rules. Early students in computer science had to compile boxes of punch cards.

I'm surprised students have only been able to save 30% with the technological advances they have now. Perhaps professors should adjust and assign more papers.

Before we go making economic arguments on why this makes sense or doesn't, look at how the data is constructed. It's a mish-mash of different university surveys at different times, coming from different sources. Who could trust that?

"Before we go making economic arguments on why this makes sense or doesn't, look at how the data is constructed. It's a mish-mash of different university surveys at different times, coming from different sources. Who could trust that?"

Probably people who have spent less than 30 hours a week pondering over these issues.

This would mesh well with my personal experience in college (2005-2009).

@Jolly @TheUnrepentantGunner, RTFA, they controlled for SAT scores, school selectivity, and a host of other factors. Those effects are tiny compared to the sea change.

Also, everyone brings up word processors, but the sea change seems to have appeared in the late 60's. Numbers are steady at ~38h/week from the 20's to 1965, then they begin their precipitous demise. Did carbon paper get a lot better? I really don't think technology could explain it.

I'm not surprised. Combine @UnrepentantGunner's /@Matt's greater ease of producing term papers and assignments, @UnrepentantGunner's leftward shift in the quality/ability distribution of students today, and finally grade inflation i.e. the cost of getting a C has dropped substantially, and it's no wonder students spend less time studying/working on homework. If anything, per @Ricardo, 27 hrs a week sounds too high!

I graduated in 2007, and I would say I did maybe 10-15 hours a week, except around midterms and finals, when I did 30-35.

Given the productivity gains students report as justifying fewer hours on homework--due to the internet, etc.,--

I have now become convinced there is a strong argument for

reducing research faculty salaries

as they should have become more more productive and efficient and produced more papers

just as their students have.

Cheaper and less time to produce.

An interesting figure to include in this study would be, alongside hours studying for class, the change in hours worked outside of the classroom in various work-studies, odd jobs, and part-time jobs that students usually take on.

I would suspect that as funding for education has deceased (public) while the tuition rates have increased, more students are spending more of their time working a job rather than studying to pay for tuition, books, apartment rent, etc. Since more and more "average" students are attending college than in the 1960s, it could be the case that students attending college decades ago were more likely to have financial support from their families or something like the G.I. bill and therefore would not need to work a part-time (or sometimes full-time) job on the side. However, now than more and more middle income students attend college, it is necessary for the students to also contributed financially and divert their efforts to a job along with coursework.

Another thing to consider is that there has been an increase in students studying "professional" type subjects like business rather than liberal arts, which may draw more students to spending time working a job or internship, rather than studying (but this may only have a minor effect on the study results). The more important thing to look at would be the tradeoff between tuition, study hours, and work hours.

As an '06 graduate I find the arguments from productivity way off in light of the actual work I remember doing in college. Most comments have assumed that the work of an undergraduate is writing research papers. But it's likely that most college graduates do not write a single research paper. This is clearly true for all students in sciences, math, engineering, and economics. It is also true for all college freshman taking lower division classes. Even in courses where papers are assigned, they are not technically research papers, but are usually argumentative essays that are strictly limited to the reading materials assigned and the class lectures. Actual research papers are usually written by a subset of college seniors who opt to work on a 'thesis'. So, the work of college students seems to be: (1) reading assignments; (2) class attendance; (3) memorizing and repackaging the materials presented in #1 & 2 in an exam or essay format. The internet has nothing to do with any of this. Also, even if coursework consisted of research, the efficiency theory seems off to me, b/c the work of a college student is not to complete a certain task, but instead to complete a task better than ones peers and thus earn a higher grade. It is a zero-sum competition, so efficiency shouldn't matter- no one in an arms race reduces their military budget every time they develop a more effective weapon.

I'm not sure what explanation is at play once the technology argument is displaced. However, I can confirm that the 27 hours/week finding seems spot on, and I recall undergraduate work being the equivalent of a part-time job for most people I knew.

So do college students today read and comprehend twice as fast as I and other students did in the 1970s?

It isn't just the research for and writing of papers.

I recall reading before class, taking notes in class, reviewing and annotating notes after class, more reading and review throughout the week and on weekends. With the research and writing of papers mixed in with that. (Studying a mix of history, poli sci, and science and math.)

Between class and lab time, library time, reading and review, must have spent 50 to 60 hours each week taking a full load (15 to 18 credits). And then working another 20 to 25 on top of that. (Very little social life since I had to pay my own way and I avoided student loans until my last year when I borrowed $1200, mostly to buy a used car and a better stereo....)

There are 168 hours each week. If you assume 8 hours each day for sleeping, 2 for eating, commuting, personal hygiene, etc., that leaves about 100 hours per week for everything else.

I graduated in 4.25 years from a top forty school with a decent GPA and put in no more than ten hours per week on average. Likely more like eight hours per week. That includes time spent in class.

If you're taking 15 credits and go to all of the classes and do nothing else, isn't that about 12 hours per week? And if you take any courses with labs, the total hours spent just in a classroom or lab is higher. IIRC, the rough rule was that for each credit, you'd spend 1 hour in class and 2 to 3 hours outside class, or 3 to 4 hours per credit. Taking 15 credits that's roughly 45 to 60 hours each week.

No wonder college doesn't mean a thing today. It's merely a taxpayer subsidized 4 or 5 year extension of an easy high school, with no work to speak of.

John, i can only see the ungated version from here, but using sat's as a way to classify students itself is folly, given the general changes to both the exam and the approximate distribution and how it's scored.

there might have been a gradual drop at 1965, but im guessing most of the meaningful drop rate started at 1988 or so, and bet it corresponds closely and inversely to the rate of tuition increase.

as to jack: definitely forgot grade inflation, thats a very good point

No one has mentioned Powerpoint. :-) I'm sure teachers today, using the latest technology, are able to impart knowledge much more efficiently than mine were back in 1959-63. And I probably wasted 10 hours a week trying to decipher my illegible handwritten notes.

More seriously, to those who point to lower quality of students because more are going to college, wouldn't that also imply that professors are of lower average quality and maybe work less today than in 1960?

Viet Nam? The data seem to go from 1961 to 1981. The corrected values seem just about flat from 1981 forward. Thus, the main thing seems to be a one-time jump down between 1961 and 1981. I admit I'm just eye-balling one chart from the paper. But if my impressions are correct, then you start to think the big change might be a change in the behavior of professors induced by the Viet Nam war. Many instructors did not want to flunk young men who might then be drafted. My explanation connects to grade inflation, though a de facto no-flunk policy may not explain most observed grade inflation.

As someone who acquired two engineering degrees between 1965 and 1971, I will vouch for the hours spent in class and studying. If anything, 40 hours was the minimum. As a manager I have had the opportunity to assess the preparedness of today's graduates. Believe me, they are not (as a group) well prepared or, in my estimation, well educated. I wonder if they spend all of their time texting and playing games on their computers. I also have a young friend who now teaches at the university level. Her assessment is that 25% to 50% of the students in her classes are totally unprepared for college level work. Those that are prepared suffer the consequences since her school requires that she present the material in a way that the least prepared can comprehend, it possible. Since she is graded by her students (for retention, remuneration and tenure) in what is little more than a popularity contest she has little choice but to comply. With a little luck she will get tenure and be able to teach upper division courses after the majority of the unqualified have flunked out, or are repeating their first year courses for the third or fourth time.

I checked the two ungated papers, and I repeat my earlier guess--co-education. The papers mention women as a part of the changing composition of schools. But they do not mention the huge change in having a near-equal level of men and women in school together every day.

I looked at Table 1 to the June 2009 paper, and its numbers for women surprised me. It had women as:

46% of the student body in 1961,
48% in 1981,
55% in 1998
61-64% in 2003-4.

Was it really 46% women at the Ivies in 1961? At big state land-grant colleges? I didn't think so. And I'm also not sure how many of those women were in co-ed schools.

I think most of us who went to college when women/men might be in the room next to us may not be able to understand what it was like when they weren't even on the same campus.

I found the verbal and quantitative gre score stats pretty interesting.

If you are reading this post

You are not studying.

Get back to work.

What I haven't seen discussed is the implicit reward system for faculty members if they get good student reviews.

In the past, you never graded a faculty member--they graded themselves, and didn't give a d-mn what the students thought. They graded each other on their research, not teaching ability.

Then, we went to polling the students.

Doesn't take much to figure out that if you please the masses, the masses will reward you.

Or don't you believe in markets for popularity.

And, if you assign alot of homework you are not going to win a popularity contest. No sir.

Butch: wrote "As someone who acquired two engineering degrees between 1965 and 1971, I will vouch for the hours spent in class and studying. If anything, 40 hours was the minimum."

How much of that time was spent in labs doing experiments or the related activity?

I was a student and then staff member at a liberal arts college when science and engineering were "the degrees" given high status even as they were seen as geeks or crazy in popular culture. Serious students spent hours if not days in the labs, with recreation involving one's science specialty. "doing" was critical to learning in those days. Today, such opportunities or requirements seem far less accessible to students, at least the under classes. Equipping and supervising labs is seen as too expensive.

I ran one of the early computer labs, 1968-73, back in the days when input was on 80 column punch cards - the lab was open to students 65-75 hours a week, only one intro to programming class. My prime directive was to work with faculty and students to integrate computer processing capabilities into all the academics. We had math students trying to figure out how to use computers to write poetry to make the humanities requirements more relevant. But all the labs, from chemistry, physics, geology, to the acting, pottery, and artists studies were busy places until 10 or 11 pm nearly every weekday.

Anyone have insight into the situation on campuses these days? Is access to the places of "doing" freely available, or are they rationed out in minimal "run through the steps but don't try to learn anything" time slots?

This is probably very simple, even if the data sets are suspect. Most of these comments have been provided already, but:

Grade inflation is the obvious culprit, but it may not be obvious which is the cause and which is the effect. There is an absolute limit to how much success a student may achieve, if defined by grades. Most students don't consider the other benefits of studying, but all realize how much time is required to achieve the level that the student has set as his or her goal. If it takes less time to achieve that standard, the extra time is free. How many students see incentives to study and learn more once the "A" standard is reached?

There are more college students, or at least students from a wider variety of social and economic backgrounds, than 50 years ago. Not all of these students have the same preparation many of these students are "weaker" when it comes to achieving on the grade-based scale. In large, curve-graded classrooms this will require less effort for the "A" students to stand out.

There could also be an effect from how easy it has been to get student loans in recent years. There's no great incentive to work hard if paying for college is "easy money."

Glad to see these ideas in play. The most recent version (ungated, I believe) is available here

Why are the hours spent a good measure of performance? It's the productivity that ultimately matters! It's like judging farming in the US versus Thailand by counting the number of hours a farmer spends in the fields.

And now you have to be pretty much rich (or the other extreme) to be in private colleges - and almost all, pretty soon too.

Does the report control for the significant uptick in student groups, volunteering, and working during college? If not, that's serious omitted variable bias. Spending time on school isn't all it takes to get into a good college, and students are doing all sorts of things these days.

There's clearly a confounding effect somewhere, because 27 hrs/wk ... after 10 years in the academic world I can say that no, this is not an accurate representation of the hundreds of people I knew in science and engineering.

There's clearly a confounding effect somewhere, because 27 hrs/wk ... after 10 years in the academic world I can say that no, this is not an accurate representation of the hundreds of people I knew in science and engineering.

"science and engineering"

There you go.

Careless, the humanities students don't work less, they work different. Papers, presentations, other assignments not found in science and engineering. Not less, different.

File that in the "first time for everything". I didn't think anyone pretended humanity/LA students in general worked nearly as hard as students in hard sciences.

When I was an undergrad at Rice from 1876-1980, almost nobody I knew had a television set in his dorm room.

I could throw a party at my house every night and still graduate faster than you sir.

I am amused both by the tendency of baby boomers to see this study as confirming their view of the younger civilization and of other people (current students?) thinking that it means students are much more productive with technology these days. Most of the decline found in the paper (8 hours out of 10) occurred from 1961 to 1981 - before PCs would have a large impact and while baby boomers were making their way through college.

My theory is that students are content with a certain ranking, so anything that gives the average student other things to do than study (coed campuses, part time work, a higher value on leisure time, teachers that are more concerned with student reviews) would give all but the students fighting for the very top academic spots an incentive to study less since they could keep their relative positions with less work.

I wonder if some of this is a cultural curve. I've found just informally that a student who is first in their family to go to college is much more motivated to work hard than one where it's simply an expected part of their education, rather than an exception.

The GI Bill introduced a large number of first timers into the system and the baby boom added an even larger number. So it's easy to believe that we would see a spike in the sixties and then a gradual lessening as college became less exceptional and more expected.

"No one has mentioned Powerpoint. :-) I'm sure teachers today, using the latest technology, are able to impart knowledge much more efficiently than mine were back in 1959-63. And I probably wasted 10 hours a week trying to decipher my illegible handwritten notes. "

If you're learning from Powerpoint slides, maybe the answer is that what is being taught is no more than can fit on 5-7 bullets per screen.

Powerpoint makes you stupid. If a teacher is presenting his course in Powerpoint, transfer to another class.

The article says that they were controlling for 'school composition'. I can't read the gated article, but it makes me wonder if they're controlling for the percentage of students in science/engineering vs the percentage in humanities.

I studied engineering, then physics, and along the way a lot of philosophy and other humanities. The humanities courses were nothing in terms of workload compared to science/engineering. Anyone who can write reasonable paragraphs and compose their thoughts well enough to knock out a 400 word essay can breeze through a lot of humanities courses with minimal effort.

This has become easier over time, as the standards in the humanities have declined dramatically from what I can see.

In the 1980's our Province instituted an English competency requirement for university graduation. The requirement was ridiculously simple: You had to write a 400 word essay on a simple topic, and you were graded only on your ability to formulate a thought and write a few coherent paragraphs which reach a reasonable conclusion. You were even forgiven a number of grammatical and spelling errors.

For a while, I was a marker for these essays. Most of them were unbelievably bad. After a couple of years, the universities were full of kids in danger of not being able to get their degrees because they couldn't pass this simple exam. The Province's solution? They canceled the exam and eliminated the requirement. So these kids got their degrees, but it made me wonder how anyone could possibly get a degree in the humanities while being unable to express themselves in a simple short-form essay.

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