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Elite Colleges Need to Offer Less Affirmation. And Insist on More Work.

Education Next

February 7, 2024

Recently, I offered a not-so-sophisticated explanation for the histrionics we’ve seen at elite colleges: too many students are simply aimless, lonely, and bored. Well-meaning concern about the mental and emotional state of college students today has fueled a lot of affirmation and hand-holding. But much of this may ultimately be counterproductive, exacerbating fragility rather than supporting well-being.

After all, on the merits, it’s hard to look at elite college students and conclude they’re overworked or overstressed. As I note:

Last winter, in a survey of four-year-college students, 64 percent said they put “a lot of effort” into school. Yet even among these self-described hard workers, less than a third said they devote even two hours a day to studying. In 2010, economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks calculated that in 1961 the average full-time student at a four-year college studied about 24 hours per week; by 2003, that was down to 14 hours. We’ve normalized a college culture in which students believe that 20 or 25 hours of class and study time combined constitutes a full week.

And yet, while workloads are down, grades are way up. Although the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson has fretted that Harvard’s students are subject to the “absurd expectation of constant productivity,” grade inflation has been pervasive at selective colleges in recent decades. (Harvard’s average GPA climbed from 3.0 in 1967 to 3.8 in 2022). And elite college students know that, once admitted, they needn’t worry about earning a diploma—since their institutions brag about their 96 percent completion rates.

Maybe students at selective colleges are busy with jobs? Well, in the 1980s, 40 percent of America’s college students worked full-time. By 2020, that figure had fallen to one-in-ten. Meanwhile, the Surgeon General has warned that Americans are lonely and isolated, particularly those ages 15 to 24, who’ve seen in-person time with friends plunge by 70 percent since 2003—down to 40 minutes a day in 2020.

If students aren’t studying, working, or hanging out with friends, what exactly are they doing? That’s the question. For one thing, college-age youth spend an extraordinary amount of time online, swiping through videos and scrolling social media.

The anomie we see at elite colleges is less evident at regional institutions and community colleges where students are busier: They’re far more likely to attend part-time, live at home, be older, and have kids or jobs. Among community college students, nearly a third work more than 30 hours a week, and 15 percent have two or more jobs. At these institutions, students are far less likely to be demonstrating on a manicured quad than juggling transportation and childcare.

The funny thing is how much of an open secret these dynamics are. A slew of faculty wrote me after the piece appeared, offering some version of “Yup!” and their own experiences. As one veteran professor wryly related,

For a quarter century, I’ve taught a big-enrollment course in introductory psychology. A student came to see me during my office hours in early November. She’d flunked the first mid-term on October 13 and the second mid-term on October 31. Here’s the core of the conversation:

StudentAfter I got an F on the first mid-term, I put in a “superhuman” effort studying for the second mid-term.

ProfessorHow much time did you actually devote to this class? Don’t include the time you attended the class or the time you spent reading the textbook for the first time. How much total additional time did you spend from October 13 to October 31 studying?

StudentAbout three or four hours.

As an educator and employer, I’ve typically found that most people have a latent desire to be challenged and engaged. But that requires clarity regarding expectations and norms. Otherwise, hard work can feel pointless, nerdy, or like a sucker’s bet. If students aren’t finding fulfillment through academics, work, or friendships, they’ll seek it out some other way, such as hurling themselves into performative protest (whether they understand their cause or not).

What should we do about all this? I offer some thoughts in the longer essay. But the place to start seems pretty clear: resetting the culture of selective colleges. Today, student evaluations and faculty rating sites reward professors for assigning less work and granting easy As. “Students struggle to win admission to elite schools. Once they arrive, however, they hunt for professors with low expectations,” George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan noted in The Case Against Education.

We need to reset expectations and incentives for students and faculty alike. How about this? For full-time college students, studying and classes should constitute a 40-hour week. Course-taking and workloads should be modified accordingly. Heck, that might even let students finish faster, which could do much to help rein in the cost of college.