THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 39, Fall 2010

William A. McEachern, Editor

STUDY TIME DOWN, GRADES UP.
ANY QUESTIONS?

When I was a student many years ago, professors advised that we should study at least two hours for each hour of class. Thus a 15 hour course load meant at least 30 hours of study a week. Over the years, I have passed this two-to-one advice along to my students. Do other instructors still recommend this benchmark? Apparently, some do. My Google of "two hours of study for each hour of class" turned up more than 2,000 hits in course syllabi, college guides, student handbooks, and career counseling brochures at places like Penn State and Purdue.

How does actual study time stack up against this ratio? Two economists are reporting some interesting findings about trends in study time. In "The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data" to be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, Philip S. Babcock of UC-Santa Barbara and Mindy Marks of UC-Riverside rely on a dozen data sources to track average weekly study time over the decades (an NBER Working Paper version published earlier this year can be found at http://www.nber.org/papers/w15954).

The authors hone in on student surveys at 156 colleges and universities found to be broadly representative of all institutions of higher education. The sample consists of full-time undergraduates taking full course loads. Between 1961 and 2003, average study time per week fell from 24.4 hours to 14.4 hours, for a drop of 10 hours, or 41%. The drop was not a result of students taking longer to get through college. On-time seniors showed a similar decline. Students at liberal arts colleges reduced their average study time from 29.1 hours per week in 1961 to 17.5 hours per week in 2003, a drop of 11.6 hours, or 40%. At doctoral institutions, study time fell from 24.6 to 14.4 hours per week, for a decline of 10.2 hours, or 41%. At masters institutions, study time fell from 22.8 hours to 13.8 hours, a drop of 9 hours, or 39%. And at other four-year institutions, study time fell from 23.4 hours to 13.7 hours, a drop of 9.7 hours, or 41%.

Working students studied less than other students, but study time fell regardless of how much they worked. Study time for students not working fell from 25.2 hours to 14.8 hours, or 41%. For those working less than 20 hours per week, study time fell from 23.6 hours to 14.4 hours, or 39%. Among students working more than 20 hours a week, study time fell from 17.8 hours to 13.2 hours, or 26%.

Students with college-educated fathers studied about an hour more than students with fathers with no college, but study time fell by about 10 hours regardless whether the father had no college, some college, or a college degree. Study time also declined regardless of race or gender. Whites, Blacks, and Asians all studied about 14 hours per week in 2003, but Asians dropped from 29.5 hours in 1961 to reach that level, while Blacks dropped from 18.6 hours. So the average study time of Asians fell 51.5% versus only 24% for Blacks (Whites fell 42.5%). Males dropped by 10.5 hours, or 43.5%, and females dropped 9.9 hours, or 40%.

Average study time fell for the eight broad college majors reported. Social science majors fell 11.1 hours, or 43%, and business majors fell 8.9 hours, or 40%. The largest decline was among health majors, who studied 14.8 fewer hours, or 50%. The smallest decline was among engineering majors, a drop of 8.6 hours, or 32%. Business majors studied the least in both years, falling from 22.2 hours in 1961 to 13.3 hours in 2003.

The authors consider two possibilities why study time declined. First, improvements in education technology may have reduced the time needed to accomplish some tasks. For example, term papers can be written on word processors aided by electronic searches. But much of the decline in study time occurred by 1981, before relevant technology had been developed. What's more, study time declined across all disciplines, even those such as engineering that require fewer papers and less library research.

A second possible explanation is a decline in academic standards. Because there are no benchmark measures of what students learn in college, it's hard to say whether standards have declined. Perhaps teachers and learning materials became so effective that students don't need to study as much to learn as much. Babcock and Marks dismiss this as unlikely. Certainly those who continue to recommend two hours of study for each hour of class would not be inclined to accept this. What we do know is that scores on the college entrance exams have fallen since the 1980s, and since then cohorts of college students have been drawn from those lower in the ability distribution.

Babcock and Marks lean towards the falling-standards hypothesis. In a second piece, they speculate why standards might have fallen (see "Leisure College, USA: The Decline of Student Study Time," Education Outlook, August 2010, at aei.org/docLib/07-EduO-Aug-2010-g-new.pdf). The authors note that the rising importance of student evaluations may create perverse incentives for instructors. These evaluations, which came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, seem to yield higher ratings for "easier" instructors, other things constant, and a given instructor gets higher ratings if the course is easier. Students exert less study effort when courses are easier, so study time falls (see more on this in The Grapevine). Because faculty members believe they should spend more of their time on research, and students want to enjoy themselves rather than study, the two groups agree to live and let live and form a "mutual nonaggression pact."

More generally, Babcock and Marks ask if the whole point of higher education is to help students learn, which will enrich their lives in various ways, why should students demand more leisure and less learning? Why is education one of the few products where consumers want less than they pay for? One argument is as the population, including students, becomes wealthier, the demand for leisure increases. This does not fit well with the evidence that students now work more for pay than they used to. Also, students from more educated families, where incomes are higher on average, study more than other students.

An opposite argument holds that students feel poorer because of rising college costs, so they have to work more to pay for college, and thus they study less. But the evidence shows that study time has dropped the most among students who are not working. Another possible explanation is that students are now engaged in more volunteer work, which draws time away from studies. Reliable time series data are not available on hours spent volunteering, but college students after 2000 averaged about two hours a week volunteering. In contrast, the authors cite a 2006 survey of time use for the California system that found college students averaged 11.4 hours per week playing on their computers "for fun," an activity that did not exist in 1961.

Another explanation for the fall in academic standards is that the college degree has become a useful signal to employers regardless how much the student studies and learns. Research suggests that employers in recent years have come to rely less on student grades. Students now spend more time trying to get into the best college they can—prepping for entrance exams, shaping their high school resumes to look good on paper, employing admission consultants, and filling out multiple applications. So the critical steps are to get into the best college and to graduate, then let those signals substitute for anything that may or may not have been learned while there.

Regardless of the cause of the decline in study time, Babcock and Marks note that increases in human capital accounted for most of the economic growth in the last century. Given the importance of human capital, a 41 percent decline in study time has serious implications for economic progress. Declining study time also lowers the time cost of college, making college more affordable (e.g., students can work more for pay if they choose to, yet still keep up with their studies). Reports on the rising dollar cost of college miss the trend about the declining time cost of college.

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