16 April 2024

A college student expresses some stark realities

Excerpts from an eye-opening essay by an undergraduate student:
I was surprised to find I spend far, far less time on my classes than on my extracurricular activities... It turns out that I’m not alone in my meager coursework. Although the average college student spent around 25 hours a week studying in 1960, the average was closer to 15 hours in 2015...

This fall, one of my friends did not attend a single lecture or class section until more than a month into the semester. Another spent 40 to 80 hours a week on her preprofessional club, leaving barely any time for school. A third launched a startup while enrolled, leaving studying by the wayside... These extreme examples are outliers. But still, for many students, instead of being the core part of college, class is simply another item on their to-do list, no different from their consulting club presentation or their student newspaper article...

Half of the blame can be assigned to grade inflation, which has fundamentally changed students’ incentives during the past several decades. Rising grades permit mediocre work to be scored highly, and students have reacted by scaling back academic effort...

And therein lies the second reinforcing effect of grade inflation, which not only fails to punish substandard schoolwork but actively incentivizes it, as students often rely on extracurriculars to get ahead. Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education, made this point in a recent New York Times interview, saying that “Students feel the need to distinguish themselves outside the classroom because they are essentially indistinguishable inside the classroom.”..

One of my classmates last semester, who is one of the more academically oriented people I know, told me that to get the best grade on an important essay, he simply “regurgitated the readings” without thinking critically about the material...

This utilitarian approach to schoolwork requires a cultural explanation beyond grade inflation, and some of the blame must be placed on the newly meritocratic nature of college admissions. Although the partial shift away from the monied legacy networks that dominated Ivy League spots has been beneficial overall, the change also initiated a résumé arms race... nationwide surveys of incoming freshman confirm this narrative, as an increasingly large share of first-years view college as preparation for financial success rather than a site of learning per se...

This attitude is one manifestation of what Fischman and Gardner call a “transactional model” of college. According to their book, a so-called transactional student “goes to college and does what (and only what) is required to get a degree and then secure placement in graduate school and/or a job; college is viewed principally, perhaps entirely, as a springboard for future-oriented ambitions.”..

In contrast, a professor who is also a College alumnus recently told me that he spent most of his time at Harvard taking five or six classes a semester without doing extracurriculars. Hearing that made me think I’ve probably approached this place in the wrong way. I was discussing the professor’s comments with my roommate the other day, and we both agreed that if we were to go back and redo our undergraduate education, we would basically drop all our extraneous clubs and take as many classes as possible.
I'm sure this essay will trigger a lot of responses from readers (most of whom have probably attended college and experienced similar (or opposite) situations, and I anticipate some vigorous comments.  I would encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and not rely on my focused excerpts.  And note the student is at an elite university, but the principles expressed likely extend broadly across the academic world.


  1. The book to read about all of this is Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift. It goes from anecdotal evidence to larger conclusions (with data) about how much work students do.

  2. A bunch of loose points. I acknowledge that some may be contradictory:

    * The American system has so many graded assignments that it's hard to imagine students doing more than required. When I taught, they had to do two homework assignments, 2 pre-class assignments, go to lab, write a lab report, do a quiz, and their class attendance was taken. There were two midterms and a final. Everything was (a small) part of their grade. Multiply by a number of classes and students have dozens of deliverables a week. They end up running from one to the next. How can they have time for doing anything else?

    When I went to school in Europe, we had one exam at the end of the semester. If you did your homework, you got a 10% bonus on the exam - which really didn't help much. Much more time to decide for yourself what to do. And even there, for me learning time was during the semester, exam week was all about cramming stuff in my head to pass the exam.

    * Extracurricular work is pretty much required these days for subsequent functions. Try getting in law, med or grad school with just a grade list.

    * It matters if you major in humanities or STEM. The work required for each is HUGELY different. Both in volume or complexity. This was the same in Europe.

    * With the enormous price inflation of tuition, students pretty much expect to get a degree. It is very hard for these elite institutions to deny that. Also, the parents of elite law school students tend to be very good lawyers.

    * In Europe, failing an exam was normal. In the US, it is an embarrassment.

    * There is a huge difference between the privileged elite student body, who know their life is settled, irrespective of what they do, since they will get an elite degree, and your blue collar state school student body, who have an economic necessity to get a degree. Especially when those state schools aren't the flagship state school.

    Elite students' daddy will always arrange for a job in finance, even if their grades are crap due to too much drugs use. State school students' parents don't have such a network. And yet, despite the fact that they work harder to overcome their lack of privilege, they still won't get that job in finance because their business degree from SW State U isn't taken as serious as the recommendation from elite daddy.

    Privilege matters.

    * There are also huge differences between extracurricular activities. Organizing a weekly "charity themed" wine fest in your sorority is different than running an actual charity and fundraising hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    * While academia has the name of being very liberal, it is exceedingly conservative when it's asked to change.

    In conclusion, it's always been possible to shyster yourself though college. However, it's also always been possible to get a good education, and do some fun stuff on the side. It's all about attitude, opportunity, and effort.

    My advise to students, wherever they go: Work hard, party hard, and don't waste the opportunities that present itself. You're gonna be fine.

    PS: I need to stop commenting on every post.

    1. By all means feel free to comment on everything (and Crowboy would be disappointed if you stop...).

    2. Speaking as a professor who has witnessed these changes over a couple of decades, one of the primary reasons we have so many assignments is that students will no longer do any work that does not have a point value attached. No reading unless there’s a non-cheatable reading quiz, no drafts of papers unless they’re required, etc. I hate all the assignments (and grading them) too, but we cannot take for granted that students are willing to put in the work to get their education anymore.

      Many students now see education as a customer, where they paid for the diploma and we’re making them jump through pointless hoops to get what they paid for, rather than as a gym membership, where we provide access to equipment and training, but they need to do the work themselves to gain the muscles.

      When we do require more work (to force the students to study), the students complain to our administrators that we’re not “flexible,” and then those administrators come down on us faculty to make things easier for the whinging students. This results in grade inflation and students learning that all they need to do is complain, which is easier than studying. We still have a few good ones, but many of them are pissed that their fellow students are getting the same diploma without doing the same learning.

    3. students will no longer do any work that does not have a point value attached. No reading unless there’s a non-cheatable reading quiz, no drafts of papers unless they’re required, etc. I hate all the assignments

      Unfortunately, this is a circular argument. My view is that students are treated like children, so they behave like children. Treat them like adults, and they will behave like adults.


      When we do require more work (to force the students to study), the students complain to our administrators that we’re not “flexible,” and then those administrators come down on us faculty to make things easier for the whinging students.

      It's administrators who have the least spine and who keep this system going. Because they are very much in agreement with the idea that students are "buying" a degree, and that students just must jump through the hoops that can't be too hard. Administrators care about students getting degrees. They do not care what students need to do to get that degree.

      But it's not as easy as that. There's a lot more corrupt stuff happening. Faculty raises often depend heavily on student evaluations. And how do you get high ratings? Make your class easier. Faculty members get in trouble is too many students fail their class.

      Furthermore, I've never come across a good way to evaluate whether an exam is of proper difficulty. Perhaps an education researcher can way in here. But as a teacher, you can do whatever you want. Make it as hard or easy as you want. No one will stop you - there are no rules. Which is weird, because we should have objective measure to determine what should be on an exam, and what is acceptable and what is too hard. Curving makes this all even more complex and keeps terrible teachers looking good.

    4. I agree with you on the treating students as the adults they are, and only wish my administrators felt the same way! I think we'd be experiencing much different outcomes if students were held accountable for their decisions and responsibilities rather than being excused at the first sign of complaint.

      The issue around faculty raises (and you should know that these don't happen much or often or for even large amounts) also goes back to administrators. I know of some (unfortunately not at my university) who do require their faculty to hold to appropriate grading standards and will reprimand faculty to appear to be inflating grades. That isn't the most common administrator response though.

      I do, in fact, happen to be a psychometrician, so I can tell you we have many ways to determine if an exam is of appropriate difficulty, if the questions are appropriate in terms of validity and reliability, etc. Many faculty are not trained on how to do this, and many would be discouraged from doing so (see spineless administrators above). In some departments, prerequisite courses are assessed with a common exam to ensure that, no matter who is teaching the class, the students are held to the same knowledge standards to pass in to the following course. Curving...well, that is a whole 'nother can of worms. Most faculty I know don't curve at all, including myself. It's much more of a myth than reality.

  3. I think students can smell a rat. Universities have long been prostituted to the interests of the ruling class. Nevertheless, there's always been a subversive streak. This streak is no longer meaningful. The closest a student can get to learning anything revolutionary is to join an identity politics cult; nowhere near anything that leads to an economic justice seeking path for a unified working class--knowledge useful over a lifetime. Next, campus "sustainability" initiatives, which are supposed to inject a note of moral concern, are a fraud; this is intuitively obvious to students. Beyond this, the number of really mediocre professors has exploded in the last 40 years. Beneath it all, fundraising has made universities cultural captives of corporations as never before. If we're talking about what once existed in the confluence of academic rigor and intellectual curiosity, the life is gone. So, why would a student WANT to be in class? What's the payoff? The payoff comes by way of jumping through the minimum number of hoops necessary on the road to a "good job." Again, students can smell the corruption, even if they don't know it consciously; so it's now a strictly pragmatic game, where idealism once had at least a fighting chance.

  4. It's not only grade inflation that's a problem! In the work place a similar situation is occurring, at least in my field - tech. I recently retired a little early after almost 40 years developing software. I worked with 20-somethings bitching that they didn't have titles of "senior xyz". At least one didn't like his title "junior xyz" (I suppose it's demeaning in his eyes or something). Of course, the title requires a salary so they're getting inflated salaries to go along with it. And believe me, based on many of the decisions made, code written (usually without testing!), etc, they are most certainly NOT "senior" level contributors except in extremely rare instances.

  5. As an educator, one of the most depressing things is our funding. In California we are moving towards a funding system that rewards colleges (specifically community colleges) money based on degrees and certificates awarded rather than attendance, to encourage academic success. But this just means we are all bending over backwards to produce useless certificates that students can be awarded because they took and passed our courses. And of course, since the money is with completion, we are heavily incentivized to pass our students. Never mind that the vast majority of our students aren’t interested in degrees or certificates, they just want transferable units for the 4 year institution and GE credit that they will transfer to. So most of our students won’t be generating much money at all for us anymore, unless we align our programs to award degrees incidentally with their transfer plans. So another way to bend over backwards is to reduce GE requirements to only the bare necessities in order to get students to just “sign up” for a degree as they are transferring out of the college (you did all this work and your eligible for a degree, why not take it?).

    All of it dilutes the curriculum, dilutes the degree, makes all of our institutions the same, and makes academia just a factory.

  6. 1. Undergrad is no longer a place attended for higher education, but more of a semi-mandatory step for progressing in life a-la high school. As more and more places ask for a college degree as a requirement for employment, more people join for the degree and nothing much else.

    2. Grades don't matter as much anymore, and many employers don't care about them - Grade inflation is one thing, but recent decades, which have had the largest percentage of college grads in workforce, have shown that grades aren't an adequate reflection of merit or competence - which is why every employer has their own quirky little process for choosing their employees. This has students now prioritising other ways to polish up their resume - extracurriculars. Grades pretty much only a screener in the sense that low grades is a red flag.

    These issues are rarer in higher education, which is the "real academia" now.

  7. I know the stats cited are a few years old, but not going to class has been made many times worse by covid. My kid started grad school in 2020 and no one went to class (except labs, so she had to move there). All the lectures are now on video. She put in the work and had no extracurriculars, and is about to graduate. Meanwhile, she is meeting her classmates for the first time in clinicals. Also, many of her peers are NOT going to graduate, because they thought "not going to class" meant they didn't have to put in the work.

  8. The first thing I must say is that it bothered me that a magazine run by Harvard is asking for donations to read their article, while the university is holding billions of dollars in endowments that could easily fund the magazine.

    As Nepkarel stated, I believe there is a big difference between the humanities and STEM curricula. My son is studying Mechanical Engineering at the same state university (not the flagship state university) where I earned my BSME. It seems to me that he is spending more of his time on homework than I did and he is not participating in any extra-curricular activities. I was in a club that presented movies and concerts on campus, an officer in our schools chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers, and worked on an SAE project race car.

    I think my son is about the same type of student as I was, although he is probably more organized and doesn't procrastinate like I did. I was probably more book-smart, while he has better practical and inter-personal skills.

    Grade curving was definitely a thing in the engineering classes, because I was usually one of the students who set or threw off the curve for the rest of the class. I think my son may take advantage of the curve, because it can let him get away with doing less preparation for the exams.

    I believe that students should have some balance of class work and extra-curricular activities, because it makes them more well-rounded. If I was interviewing a college student for an internship or an entry-level position, I would want for them to have other interests than just their classes. If they are an officer in a student organization or team leader on a design project, that would show leadership ability that would translate to the working world.

    1. the university is holding billions of dollars in endowments that could easily fund

      I should clear up that endowments are not cash in the bank, but usually tied up investments. The way it works it that someone donates a large sum of money, not to be spent, but to be invested and then to have the yield of the investment pay for a scholarship, chair or institute. That way the money lasts much longer.

      Now, Harvard and Yale have excessive amounts of money, but most schools don't have a lot of playroom despite the seemingly large numbers.

      Remember that the average rate of investment is 5-10%. So a million gets you k$50-100, enough to pay a grad student or two, but not enough to even support an assistant professor (taking overhead and all into account).

  9. All i can say is, these are not undergrads with STEM majors. Both of my kids and a number of their friends are engineering/ physics/ computer science majors. They have a LACK of free time due to the requirements in their classes -- which involve reading, homework, projects, and lab time. Almost none have time for an extra-curricular activities such as clubs or hobbies during the school year. They can't do sports for the same reason. Most are up until 1 am or later every night, including weekends doing the required work for the classes in the major. And obviously, they dont hold part time jobs outside of the classwork, unless they reduce their academic load to part time.

  10. [You have the courage to post some pretty interesting content. The courage to stand-up to the crowd is another matter. To the extent publishing dissenting or minority opinions threatens the popularity of an admin, the admin generally caves. This has two compelling benefits: the admin avoids sacrificing popularity and also sheds the burden of considering unpopular and possibly threatening viewpoints. In other words, conformity wins. And real dissent loses. The vehicle varies, that is in terms of exactly what content is deemed so offensive it must be "moderated" out (my last comment), but the result is the same. It may be the feminist-identity mafia that enforces order, through cancellation, character assassination, etc. on the left, but this is far from the only example. (I've been kicked-off several local FB pages by right wing nuts for simply defending the human rights of the homeless.) Social media is especially rife with examples--hence more and more siloed discourse. As far as I can tell, you'll be relieved to know I'm gone.]

    1. I suppose I'm "empowered" by the fact that the "popularity" of TYWKIWDBI is meaningless to me, so I frankly don't try to build or retain readership.

      Are you gone? Why?

    2. Stop this self-cancel culture!

      @Crowboy, we often disagree, but this time, I don't understand what you're saying..... At all. Remotely.

    3. @nepkarel: to the best of my abilities, this seems to stem mainly from the comment thread to the post titled ‘college admissions’.

      in it, crowboy immediately went off on one of his tangents (‘anti-male academia’, ‘the woke’, ‘the left’, ‘failed identity politics’, ‘gender is sex’, …), the whole shebang of extraordinary claims with the usual complete dearth of extraordinary proof.

      after a post by stan that (to me) read at least mildly annoyed at the neverending circling about, an anonymous poster suggested that stan moderate crowboy’s position more instead of letting him regularly derail and hijack comment threads. on the grounds that his entire jumble of conspiracy theory is aimed directly at people like themselves, and allowing it on the site is a way of endorsing it at least as a valid, to-be-tolerated option.

      after which crowboy started throwing in ‘censorship (here called moderation)’ and some hand-wringing why no-one would rather engage any of his (still unsourced) claims with counterarguments, and eventually the oh no, the valuable dissent he provides is crushed because his entire imagined shadowy cabal’s feelings are hurt that we have in his post here.

    4. ‘censorship (here called moderation)’

      This is a tired trope. People think that debating means they can say whatever they want without ever getting pushback, and then they start whining about the first amendment or censorship.

      What they're missing is that the first amendment only bans the government from limiting speech. Stan is not the government, so that does not apply.

      They're also missing the point that fora in general are may look public, but they're still on someone's website. And that someone - not being the government - has every right to make commenters do whatever they want. If they require that everybody comments in a pink tutu, then that's ok. They won't get many commenters, but that's their choice.

      In the end, it's basic politeness. You come on someone's forum, you gotta live according to what they like. If you don't like that, then you can go to another forum, or start your own forum.

      But none of this is unreasonable. Or censorship. It's just moderation.

    5. Correctimundo. I very seldom limit comments; when I do it's usually when only two readers are pairing off against one another and I sense that the topic is not being enhanced and neither will convince the other. At that point I'd like them to "take it outside" by exchanging contact info.

  11. I put the above comment in brackets thinking it would not be published. But , that's my bad given it's not clear.

    I wrote a paragraph on the subject in this post. I think it began with, "Students can smell a rat." It was not included. But I'm getting old and perhaps I failed to hit the right button. If it was excluded, I'm thinking it makes no sense to keep making comments. I don't enjoy pecking at keys all that much.

    In general, it's simply infuriating that a ("class reductionist") leftist would object to anything on the left. For example (one of many examples of the shredding of working class solidarity), if I say the whole notion of "patriarchy" as it's currently weaponized is a toxic construct doing great damage to the left, this cannot be debated. I must be "moderated-out" as a matter of principle--or what I would call allegiance to the dominant dogmas on the left. To that end I must be described as trolling, hijacking, etc. That is, delegitimatized in various ways that have nothing to do with the substance of any position I've ever taken on this blog--which as I've said is the only one I visit and a blog that will remain excellent regardless of any participation or lack of participation on my part.

    I frankly believe the "anonymous" voices expressing disapproval are used to bullying and winning. I see plenty of evidence in my local Petri dish. Several identity groups have an entitlement culture that's beyond belief; that is, which demands suspension of disbelief.

    We spent the last 40 years digging this very deep hole. We now have entire generations who believe justice is a meritocratic matter of race, gender and sexual orientation, rather than the obscene wealth and income gap between rich and poor (by poor I mean America's bottom 50%, for whom quality of life continues to decline). As I've said, this is the greatest gift ever given to the ruling class--not to exclude limousine liberals who indulge the notion that their identity sentiments (see NPR) render them virtuous.

    I won't try to recapture how this bears on the "college experience." Suffice it to say, HEAVILY.

  12. Since I was invited to make a comment on the "Politics Driven Migration" post: I live in a part of California where parents are literally shouted-down by rainbow-haired gender studies professors for even suggesting that parents might have a right to know if their school-age children are changing their sex. Agree or disagree, but you don't have to be insane to think family/parental rights might be germane. If I happen to think so, which I do, this does not make me a "bigot." It makes me someone who thinks the family has as much or more weight as an institution than the educational system. This is a traditional belief, but it's not the same as being bigoted. I won't cite my credentials in supporting "Gay rights" all my adult life. And I certainly don't deny that gender dysphoria is a real thing. But these nuances are immaterial in ideological warfare. All's fair.

    As to people leaving "blue" California as a general proposition: I'd like to see the population reduced by at least 50%. Many benefits, not least of which is that our 180,000 homeless would then have housing.

    Feel free to delete this one, given I'm off topic.


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