Monday, March 08, 2010

Hedonistic College Students

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?


The Asian of Reason said...

My personal observations have led me to conclude that the problem is not grade inflation, but standard deflation, which are related, but the effects of each can make the real picture blurry.

Daniel L. Bennett said...

I agree that there has also been standard deflation. But do you think this is the same phenomenon as grade inflation? Or, do you think that there is causal relationship, a mutual independence, or something else?

The Asian of Reason said...

I don't think grade deflation is the same as standard deflation. The two have a mutual independence, so there are certain instances where an apparent lack of grade inflation is hiding standard deflation.

The University of Texas, where I went to school, does not appear to suffer from grade inflation if you look at the statistics. But that doesn't mean there isn't a problem. I could see systematic standard deflation, especially in the humanities. I constantly produced mediocre papers, because I knew I was going to get an A. Many of the students I tutored, did not have adequate writing skills or suffered from an overall lack of cognitive ability. In essence, I could evaluate the relative performance of my peers, and determine what level of work I needed to put in to succeed. Most of the time, I knew I didn't have to try too hard.

Standards vary widely across schools, especially in the humanities, where grading is much more subjective. I'm hesitant to attack elite schools for grade inflation, because they do have many strong students who are capable of mastering subject material.

I do acknowledge that grade inflation is a problem as well. But I think standard deflation is a bigger problem.

Anonymous said...

I hope this article is a joke. It contains the dumbest argument I have seen in a while.

Kadim said...

I winced when I read

I suspect the average student at, say, Yale, study more per week than the average student at, say, my university (Ohio University).

What leads you to this conclusion? After all, the prestige of the Yale degree and its networking opportunities are extraordinary. I would be willing to bet that an individuals with a Yale degree and a 2.0 GPA is in a better position than an OU grad with a 4.0 GPA. Based on that, why assume that the average Yale student would be more industrious. If anything, I'd assume the opposite.

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 problem are you suggesting needs to be solved? Is it a problem of fairness/justice? Is it a pedagogical problem? The idea that going to school full time is somehow equivalent to a full time job isn't, in my mind, obvious, necessary or appropriate. (Keeping in mind of course that a significant percentage of full time jobs involve people working far less than 40 hours, that is, the work accomplished in those 40 hours can be done in far less of the time, with the only caveat that the person has to be "present" for 40 hours per week. In that regards, perhaps colleges are indeed mirroring the work world.)

Perhaps students are solving the problem of too many college graduates (pointed out many times in this blog) all on their own. The students' hedonism is an entirely reasonable response to the fact that the degrees themselves don't have as much value as they once did, so there is little reason to take the degrees all that seriously. (It is also, possibly, a reasonable reaction to the fact that students themselves are paying significantly more for their degrees than they once were, so perhaps they are naturally demanding the experience to flex to their tastes.)

I'm not convinced of the grade inflation argument--simply because grades have been and always will be determined by an arbitrary set of decisions. Naturally, those arbitrary set of decisions move around with time.

Unknown said...

I disagree.

"Never let schooling interfere with your education." - Mark Twain

Andy Papp said...

Perhaps Richard himself should have spent more time at school . . . elementary school. To quote "I suspect the average student at, say, Yale, study more per week than the average student at, say, my university (Ohio University)."

The average student . . . studies, not study. Ouch.

Kadim said...

Actually Andy, the professor is correctly using the subjunctive.

The "I suspect the average student" sends the rest of the sentence into the subjunctive mood, and it is correct to use "study" here.

Keeping in mind though that this use of the subjunctive is becoming archaic which is probably why you didn't recognize it.