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Why Don’t Students Study Anymore?

Usually when you hear a rant about how the younger generation is less moral or less studious or just generally less awesome than its forebears, it ends up sounding like the crotchety ramblings of a bitter oldster who simultaneously envies and despises the Youth of Today. “Get off my lawn!” and all that.

But, hey, maybe those grumpy fogies have a point. A working paper by two economists found that the amount of time college students spend on academic work has declined sharply in the last few decades.

Here’s what they found: In 1961, the average full-time college student spent 40 hours per week on academic work (that’s time in class and studying). In 2003, it was 27 hours. The authors figure that 21st-century students spend an average of 10 hours fewer every week studying than their 1961 counterparts. Over the course of a four-year college career, that would add up to something like 1,500 fewer hours spent hitting the books.

Now, the economists looked only at students who were graduating in four years, so the difference isn’t caused by more people stretching out their college experience. Also, according to the authors, the difference can’t be explained by the fact that more students have jobs or by the fact that the makeup of the student body has changed since the sixties. From the paper: “The large decline in academic time investment is an important pattern its own right, and one that motivates future research into underlying causes.”

In other words, we don’t know why. 

So maybe college students today are lazy. Or classes are a lot easier now. Or students in 1961 were big nerds with nothing better to do than waste their weekends at the library. Other explanations welcome.

(Here’s the abstract for the working paper, which was written by Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks. The early data came from 1961 came from a survey called Project Talent while the more recent data came from the National Survey of Student Engagement.)

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