This commentary originally appeared on Forbes on March 31, 2016.
Of late, the media have been awash with news accounts of student protests on college campuses around the country. From Mizzou, to Harvard, to USC, to Yale, and beyond, protesters have, among other things, forced the resignations of a president, a chancellor and a professor, all of whose political views were deemed beyond the pale by the protesters.
Throughout, charges of “institutional racism,” lack of “sensitivity” and the need for “safe spaces,” have highlighted the protesters’ demands.
These actions have produced an equally vocal reaction: Critics, on the left as well as the right, have assailed both the protesters and what they deem the weak-kneed responses to these protests by college administrators. These critics worry that American college students are becoming “coddled,” intolerant and historically illiterate.
These charges carry some weight, but an additional “enabling” factor has largely been missed: Some students protest because they can. And they can because many have a lot of time on their hands. They have a lot of time because, today, they study only about half of much as students did fifty years ago.
In 2010, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks published, “Leisure College, USA.” They found that, “in 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week.” Fourteen hours a week is “less than half as much as universities claim to require.”
Defenders of the higher-education status quo attempt to excuse the sharp decline in study times on the basis that students today work many more hours at jobs than in the past. But Babcock and Marks studied the effect of students’ jobs on their time spent studying, and they debunk this attempted explanation. The decline in time spent studying “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.”
Another attempted defense of the fact that students study roughly half as much as in the past points to the greater speed that information technology offers in writing, editing, etc. Again, Babcock and Marks head this attempted rationale off at the pass: “Most of the decline [in time students spend studying] predates the innovations in technology that are most relevant to education and thus was not driven by such changes.”What, then, is the cause? Babcock and Marks answer, “The most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at postsecondary institutions in the United States.”
What, then, is the cause? Babcock and Marks answer, “The most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at postsecondary institutions in the United States.”
Babcock and Marks’s research methodology is sound. Nevertheless, it is unsettling to read their conclusion that universities have diluted standards to such an extent that students need to study only half as much as they did 50 years ago.
Sad to say, two other national studies corroborate their charge. The first, conducted by Stuart Rojstaczer, formerly at Duke, and Christopher Healy, at Furman, studied college grades awarded nationwide over the past half-century. They found that, in the early ‘60s, roughly 15% of all grades awarded were A’s. But today that percentage has tripled. In fact, an A is the most common grade given in college, at 45%. Seventy-three percent of all grades now awarded are either A’s or B’s.
Now that we know that students are getting triple the number of A’s though studying half as much as their parents, what effect does the new “Leisure College” ethos have on learning? The second study answers this question. I’ve written previously about the landmark national survey of collegiate learning titled, Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, published in 2011. If your common sense tells you that students cannot study half as much as before but still deserve triple the number of A’s, the findings of Adrift will not surprise you. Arum and Roksa administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to a national sampling of public and private college students in the first semester of their freshman year. The CLA measures fundamental academic skills—critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and clear writing—skills that all students should master, regardless of their academic major. These students were then given the CLA four years later, during their senior year, to measure the “academic value-added” from four years in college.
What the study found is still sending shock waves through the Academy. Thirty-six percent of students nationwide show little or no increase in their fundamental academic skills after four years invested in college. Academically Adrift’s findings of lackluster collegiate learning have been corroborated by the Wabash Study.
One of the few who has spoken on this subject is Harvard University’s William Cole. Cole warns us that grade inflation has “grown into a significant problem, with no end in sight. By rewarding mediocrity we discourage excellence. Many students who work hard at the outset of their college careers, in pursuit of good grades and honors degrees, throw up their hands upon seeing their peers do equally well despite putting in far less effort.”
The ultimate, unavoidable effect of this dysfunctional “learning” environment is all too clear. As Cole states it, “If after being admitted, a student sees that all that we demand for success is minimal effort, that’s all we get.”
Apparently, that’s not quite all we get. We also get students with a lot of free time. While some may spend this time partying, others have found a pastime in protests. When I was starting out as a college professor, my senior colleagues cautioned me to “beware of college administrators with too much time on their hands.”
Today, thanks to lax standards on the part of these administrators, we also must beware of students with too much time on their hands.