Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Decline in Study Time at College

In "Leisure College, USA," Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks try to explain why American undergraduates in 2003 spent on average 10 hours less per week studying than their peers did in 1961. Colleges and universities often say that students should study two hours for every hour of class time. On this measure, a rough standard would be that students should study for about 30 hours/week, so a drop from 24 hours (in 1961) to 14 (in 2003) is huge and suggests that students now spend about half as much time studying as they ought to in order to get the most out of their educations. Babcock and Marks canvass several reasons why this decline in study time has occurred, but the reason they find most plausible is that instructors have eased up on standards at the same time as students, being more empowered than ever, appear to want more leisure.  So more people are going to college, but they are learning less while there.

Should we be alarmed by this development? Yes, if "human capital" - a population with a high level of knowledge and skills - is important, both for individuals and for the country.  If, as we are often told, students go to college to get a job, they too should want to work harder.  Here's why:
The NLSY79 includes data on time use in college and long-run wages, allowing us to combine time-use data from students who were in college in 1981 with subsequent wage data for these students at two-year intervals from 1986 to 2004. We find that postcollege wages are positively correlated with study time in college. The increase in wages associated with studying is small in the early postcollege years, but it grows over time, becoming large and statistically significant in the later years. By 2004, one standard deviation in hours studied in 1981 is associated with a wage gain of 8.8 percent.[14] We do not claim to have proved a causal effect, but we conclude--consistent with common sense and the intuitions of educators--that increased effort in college is associated with increased productivity later in life.

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