Higher Education Watch
College Students Are Studying Less Than You Think

Work hard, play hard or play hard, shirk hard? A new Heritage Foundation report finds that college students spend fewer hours on their schoolwork than high school students, and significantly fewer than most full-time employees in the labor force:

Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s American Time Use Survey from 2003–2014, during the academic year, the average full-time college student spent only 2.76 hours per day on all education-related activities, including 1.18 hours in class and 1.53 hours of research and homework, for a total of 19.3 hours per week.

Full-time high school students, in comparison, spent 4.32 hours per day on all education-related activities, including 3.42 hours in class and 0.80 hours of research and homework, for a total of 30.2 hours per week. Thus, full-time college students spend 10.9 fewer hours per week on educational activities than full-time high school students. […]

The average full-time employee works 41.7 hours per week. To match that, the typical college student would need 22.4 work hours per week, in addition to the 19.3 educational hours.

Other studies have confirmed that college students at public and private universities alike are studying almost 40 percent less today than they did fifty years ago. This may reflect the fact that college—at least for some students—functions more and more as a signaling device for employers and a networking tool for the middle and upper classes rather than as a rigorous educational program. Why spend all your time perfecting your Shakespeare essay when you could be making connections that could help enhance your career in the future? After all, most employers only want to see that you have a degree—and its virtually impossible to flunk out, given the pace of grade inflation.

Heritage argues that the relatively modest amount of time people spend studying raises questions about the value of subsidized student loan programs. It could even be that decreasing students’ financial stake in their education (and decreasing colleges’ financial stake in their success) could encourage more young people to take a more leisurely course of study and take longer to graduate.

One way to help address this problem, as we have suggested before, is to implement a more rigorous testing system for college students. A standardized assessment for graduates in various fields would help parents, policymakers, and taxpayers know whether American higher education is really imparting a majority of students with valuable knowledge and skills, or whether the four-year BA is becoming a kind of culturally-encouraged rite of passage increasingly bereft of real educational value.

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