College Students Don’t Study Enough—but Not Because They’re Lazy

There’s very real cause for concern about the fact that a large number of college students don’t seem to be studying very much, as there’s a pretty strong body of evidence indicating that the amount of work kids put in to college has a relationship to how much they get out of it. But I don’t think this kind of condescending mockery of students as lazy gets us very far.

The main issue is that as college has gotten much more expensive and as the pool of people who go to college has broadened, you have many more students doing substantial hours of market labor concurrently with going to school. That’s a big distraction. When I was in college, the university (perhaps not coincidentally, the same one attended by the author of the condescending mockery in question) was kind enough to dole out a lot of work-study jobs that had a semi-makework character where you’d be sitting behind a desk at a library not really doing much and had ample opportunity to do some of your class reading (or launch your blog, as the case may be) while on the clock. But that’s really just a mildly disguised form of student aid. The real issue gets going with the large number of students who need to do real market work at prevailing market wages and naturally tend to wind up losing focus on schoolwork.

My banal view is that you have to work on all angles of this concurrently. Nobody knows what a “communications” major is exactly, it doesn’t seem like you need to work very hard to get one, and not coincidentally they seem to learn much less than students pursuing degrees in traditional humanities, social sciences, math, physical sciences, or engineering programs. So we can work on the rigor of our offerings. At the same time, if we think it’s good for people to go to college and study and learn we have to create the circumstances where it can happen which means not asking people to get their degree as a side gig. In countries with low high school graduation rates, lots of economically important work is done by teenagers. The widely shared aspiration to transform America into the kind of society where most people graduate from some form of post-secondary education requires weaning ourselves off the market labor of the people in the relevant age bracket.