By Richard Vedder
I heard a few snickers in the audience during the debate over college attendance that McNeil-Lehrer Productions put on with the University of Virginia's Miller Center a week ago over my comment about "hedonistic college students." (The debate, by the way, will be shown on PBS stations over the nation, especially on March 17). Many people simply do not believe data from a variety of sources that suggest that college students, on average, only spend around three hours each weekday on "education", defined to include all aspects of college instruction. Indeed, if the numbers are to be believed, education takes up far less time of college students than those studying at the high school level.
To be sure, these are average statistics, and I know a lot of students who put vastly more time into their studies, including a majority of my Whiz Kids who make CCAP home. I suspect the average student at, say, Yale, study more per week than the average student at, say, my university (Ohio University). Nonetheless, an awful lot of students spend far more time in bars or "recreation" than studying.
There are many reasons for that, including a sharp decline in professorial expectations of students. But I think a paramount reason is simple: grade inflation. New findings (that Cliff Adelman challenges but which I think based on my own personal experience is probably about right) show that the average grade point average of college students is rising about 0.1 point per decade, going from roughly 2.5 in the 1950s to 3.1 today --and higher at the more elite, selective admission schools.
This grade inflation enormously reduces student incentives to study, to learn. It creates a problem in identifying excellence. It used to be that only 5 percent or less of students had 3.7 averages or above --now at some schools 30 percent do, and it becomes hard to distinguish the "extraordinarily good student" from the merely "somewhat above average" one. The ease of getting high grades is reducing the time that students spend studying, but increases the time spent drinking, playing recreational sports, and having sex. Some of our best and ablest Americans are under worked at a time when they should be working more hours than older Americans with less physical ability to endure a hard work routine.
What about a "grade inflation tax" on excessive behavior? What if state governments reduced subsidies to state universities by 5 percent for every .10 points the accumulative student grade point average exceeded 2.8? A school with a 2.7 GPA would get full subsidy, one with a GPA of 3.15 would lose 20 percent of its subsidy. In such a world, I suspect grade inflation would come to a grinding halt, that average hours spent by students on studies would rise, learning would be enhanced, etc. Why isn't it done? Because schools don't want to seem hard-hearted, don't want to lose a competitive advantage relative to other schools, and because they don't want to deal with student complaining, etc. In short, for all the wrong reasons. Hence the solution must come from the outside --dare I say the legislatures that provide a good deal of funds to many schools?