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Colleges as Country Clubs

Easily (by a factor of two) the most commented piece in this blog series of the Chronicle is my “Student Evaluations, Grade Inflation, and Declining Student Effort” entry. Now, new and better evidence has emerged that, if anything, strengthens my initial convictions.

Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks are both University of California professors (different campuses) who have delved deeply into various surveys of student time use, and have related that data to other research that plausibly could explain the very real and substantial decline in the work effort of students. While some of their research is coming out in prestigious academic journals (the Review of Economics and Statistics and Economic Inquiry), the findings are nicely encapsulated in a short study done for the American Enterprise Institute. See “Leisure College, USA: The Decline in Student Study Time” available on the AEI web site.

Babcock and Marks show how the decline in hours worked by students is real, not explained by changing survey techniques or even the changing nature of college students. The decline is universal, seen fairly uniformly in different disciplines. Moreover, it cannot be explained by improved technology (e.g., computer search engines reducing manual library search time), increases in student employment work hours, etc.  However, the reduction in incentives for students to study, as evidenced by grade inflation, is a likely explanation for much, I would surmise most, of the observed decline.

Moreover, Babcock and Marks present some evidence by others that suggests this decline has potentially real and meaningful (or as academics love to say these days, “non-trivial”) effects on labor productivity, human capital formation and economic growth. Some evidence suggests that the nominal, or reported, rise in student grades actually significantly understates the amount of grade inflation. For example, Ralph and Todd Stinebrinker suggest a 40 minute reduction in daily study time is associated with a 0.24 point decline in student grade point average (GPA) –using the conventional four point scale. Since the decline in student studying is more than twice that great since 1961 on a daily basis, the implied fall in GPA associated with reduced work effort is at least 0.50 (half a grade). Since nominally, GPAs have risen about .50 since 1960 or so, it appears that correcting for falling standards, the standard-adjusted GPA increase has been more like a full grade level (from a C+/B- average to something like a B+/A- average). Academic success per hour, as measured by grades, has soared, despite no evidence that today’s students are on average better prepared for college (and some evidence to the contrary).

Partly because of rising wealth and incomes, and partly because the Feds have vastly increased the practice of dropping money out of airplanes over student homes (or the equivalent, through student loan and grant programs), universities are becoming more like country clubs. But a third and maybe more important reason is that the students have so much free time, and they need to do something else beside drink and have sex. Hence the phenomenon of the climbing wall, the indoor track, the countless health-club like weight facilities, luxurious student union buildings, etc. 

Universities are overpriced and overfunded by naive but well-meaning third parties. This has contributed to college staffs becoming spoiled and often somewhat juvenile acting rent-seekers (they go on tantrums if they don’t get what they want). Meanwhile, their equally spoiled students too often are over-sexed booze hounds who are largely clueless about how our civilization evolved, what makes us rich, and what distinguishes right from wrong. 

The most rational argument against the above goes like this: “we are interested in outcomes, not inputs. The financial premium for college completion is greater than ever, suggesting the productivity gains associated with college have increased over time.” While a respectable argument, I think it too weakens upon close inspection, particularly given the increased use of colleges as screening devices (picking up on early research by Spence, Taubman and Wales and others). This, in turn, was no doubt partially motivated by the changing legal environment, most importantly exemplified in Griggs v. Duke Power, a Supreme Court decision that probably had an enormous influence on the college cost explosion, credential inflation, and a host of other problems gracing the American academic scene. More about that, however, in another blog.

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