Goofing Off At College

This is an excerpt from Professor Toby’s new book,
The Lowering of Higher Education in America (Praeger).
The balance between the pursuit of education and the pursuit of fun varies from college to college. Students in selective colleges and universities are less likely to goof off than in unselective institutions for at least two reasons. First, the selective colleges admit high-achieving high school graduates, the bulk of whom have the ability to meet high standards of academic performance. Second, a large proportion of their students are not content merely to graduate; they intend to pursue graduate work in academic disciplines or in professional schools.
When students in an undergraduate course are not motivated to do their reading assignments, whether it is a selective college or not, their professor can do little about it. Theoretically he could flunk half the class. In practice, however, the professor would fail only a few of them. (Failing half of the students in a class would be a public-relations disaster for the professor.) Thus, even in selective colleges, standards depend on what students are willing to learn as well as on what professors believe they ought to learn. The students in a class and the professor set the standards of academic performance by an implicit process of collective negotiation.
In the unselective colleges there is an additional complication: some students are so badly underprepared for college-level work that they cannot perform well even if they were motivated to do so. Here the negotiation process is affected by professorial resignation to the limitations of their clientele. Furthermore, some professors have ideological objections to failing students who have performed very poorly. Some believe that positive and negative sanctions (grades) do not work.

Although unselective colleges have a higher proportion of underprepared students than the selective colleges, even moderately selective and highly selective colleges contain underprepared students—some of them deliberately admitted for non-academic reasons.
Students recruited because of their athletic prowess constitute one conspicuous group of academic underperformers, especially football and basketball players. Initially they need lower academic qualifications in order to gain admission, although the National Collegiate Athletic Association attempts to set minimum standards for playing eligibility as well as for athletic scholarships. Sometimes these reasonable standards are evaded by high school athletes who present credentials from diploma mills that are not scrutinized carefully enough by college officials responsible for admissions. Especially in such cases, they neglect their studies because, having been chosen for physical prowess rather than intellectual potentialities, they find their courses difficult to master.
Grade inflation usually saves fun-seekers—as well as other academic underperformers—from being forced to leave college. In order to fail, a student has to work hard at defying academic norms. Not attending classes is usually not enough, because many professors have stopped taking attendance and those who do rarely use attendance as a basis for grading. In addition to on-line services that offer for a fee custom-written papers that students can buy and hand in to their professors, most colleges have local-note taking services whereby students can buy notes taken by academically excellent students hired by the services to attend courses and make detailed notes. Thus, students can obtain the material from the lectures without attending them. Not taking any tests, including the final exam in the course, and not handing in required papers, may do it.
If students come to college to have fun, many colleges have provided features that enable them to do so in style. The University of Houston, for example, offers hot tubs, waterfalls, and pool slides, a five-story climbing wall, and a new $53 million Wellness Center. Other colleges offer equally lavish amenities.
The Grim Figures
Anecdotal accounts as well as some statistical data show that students spend a great deal of time on having fun, which usually includes consuming large amounts of alcohol. For a significant proportion of students, “partying”—a euphemism for long weekends of continuous alcohol consumption and occasional recreational drug use—competes successfully with academic obligations. Some colleges have nation-wide reputations as “party schools.” Partying is ubiquitous at colleges, even at selective colleges with deserved reputations for academic seriousness. A 1994 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School wrote the following comment about partying in a letter to the New York Times:

To understand the severity of this problem, all you have to do is walk by a fraternity party at an average college campus. Partying starts on Thursday—and you must understand that partying and getting drunk are synonymous to a college student. The answer to “What did you do last night?” that is most likely to get someone to smile and pat you on the back is, “Oh man, I got so drunk.”

Some students, underage or not, while away many hours consuming alcohol or doing drugs with friends or alone. Alcohol and drug abuse has been a continuing problem on most college campuses. For example, in 1997 Michigan State University reported 633 alcohol-related arrests; the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities reported 555; the University of California at Berkeley reported 460; Western Michigan University reported 401, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison reported 342. More recently a freshman died in his room at a fraternity house at all-male Wabash College after solitary binge-drinking.
The Harvard School of Public Health conducted rigorous statistical studies of alcohol consumption among a random sample of 14,000 college students in 1993, 1997, and 1999 financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 128 nationally representative four-year colleges in 39 states and the District of Columbia participated in the studies. The studies found that between fifteen and twenty percent of all students in the three sample years abstained from alcohol use completely in the year previous to the study—with a somewhat higher rate of abstention in religious colleges. The studies disregarded the abstainers and focused mainly on binge drinking, defined by the principal author –Wechsler and his colleagues — to describe a style of consuming five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women, at least once in the two weeks preceding the surveys, although the surveys threw light other matters, like the proportion of students who abstained from alcohol consumption entirely, the proportion who drank moderately, and at least one question about illegal drugs. The researchers asked on their questionnaires why the binge drinkers adopted this style of alcohol consumption. In response to a question asking whether getting drunk was their motivation for drinking, those students who responded very important, important, or somewhat important, as opposed to not important, were considered to have a drinking style of “drinking to get drunk.” Two notable findings about binge drinking among colleges students were (1) how large a proportion of college students reported themselves binging on alcohol (more than 40 percent of students in the surveys) and (2) how many of the bingers did it to get drunk (about half the male bingers and even more than 40 percent of the female bingers).
When the samples were divided into occasional binge drinkers and frequent binge drinkers–those who binge three or more times in two weeks–the frequent binge drinkers reported more problems: missing a class, falling behind in school work, doing something they regretted, arguing with friends, engaging in unplanned sexual activities and not using a condom, damaging property, getting in trouble with the campus or local police, getting personally injured, drunk driving, and requiring medical treatment for an alcohol overdose. Of the frequent bingers, 57 percent drove while drunk, and 54 percent were so drunk that they could not remember where they had been and what they had done while binging. Moderate student drinkers notwithstanding, a majority of the student drinkers in the Harvard survey were binge drinkers, either occasional binge drinkers (2,962) or frequent bingers (3,135). It is difficult to comprehend how these frequent binge drinkers could have gotten much intellectual education out of their college attendance.
The alcohol-related problems of students sometimes bring them to the attention of campus or local police. Whether students are arrested or are subjected to internal disciplinary procedures depends partly on the degree of outrageousness of alcohol-related behavior and partly on college policies. Princeton students developed two traditions that institutionalize alcoholic revelry. One tradition is [Paul] Newman’s Day, in which students aim to consume twenty-four beers in twenty-four hours, which sometimes requires them to come to class drunk and to bring beer to class in coffee mugs. Actor Paul Newman had nothing to do with attaching his name to this Princeton tradition and, as a newspaper article indicates, objected to this use of his name. Another Princeton tradition, the Nude Olympics, began in the streaking days of the 1970s. Every year sophomores and often other students drank large quantities of alcohol, removed all their clothes, and ran naked around a particular campus quadrangle at midnight after the first snow. However, in January 1999 the event included some of the 350 revelers throwing bottles as well as visibly urinating and engaging in public sexual activities; ten students were hospitalized with severe alcohol poisoning. The University president, Harold T. Shapiro, appointed a committee of faculty members and students to “prevent a tragedy before it happens.” The result was that the Nude Olympics was subsequently banned—although the ban bitterly disappointed some students.
Majoring in Fun
When American students participate in junior year abroad programs in foreign colleges and universities, their fun expectations often clash with the expectations of the colleges they attend. Apparently the casual misbehavior of American students is exported to foreign colleges and universities through “study abroad” programs, which for many students are better labeled “partying abroad.” About 160,000 American students participate in these study-abroad programs every academic year. Originally intended to provide opportunities for students with a serious interest in the language or the culture of a foreign country, they lost this academic rationale, especially for English-speaking destinations like England and Australia. The unfortunate result was boorish behavior. Some Americans students in Amsterdam threw trash out of their dorm-room windows on passers-by on the street below. Other American students in Spain got into a knife-and-stick fight with local youths. Still others disappeared from classrooms for weeks to look for more interesting party scenes. “I had two students in Asia who decided that they would drop beer bottles on passing cars,” said Joseph L. Brockington, associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
Colleges have attempted to tighten controls on students taking study-abroad programs. One method, adopted by Middlebury College in Vermont, is to place all the grades students earn overseas on their transcripts. David Macey, director of off-campus study at Middlebury, believes that this measure “…will eliminate the student who goes to Australia and just hangs out on the beach and drinks beer.” Partying is an obvious repudiation of studying. Not only is the time spent partying not used for studying, but the party goers are often incapacitated the following day, either sleeping most of the day or recovering from hangovers.
The idea that students are sent to college so that they can major in fun for four years—or more—is clearly a use of higher education that adult society did not have in mind. In 2005, Johnny Lechner, then 29, was in his twelfth year as a student pursuer of fun at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus. He accumulated $30,000 worth of student loans during his college career. Some students do take a long time to graduate, sometimes for legitimate reasons—for instance, family problems or economic circumstances. This is not true of Mr. Lechner. However, he does not hold the record for length of time spent at college. Margaret Spelling, the former The U. S. Secretary of Education, said she had found a student who had been enrolled in college for 17 years.
A Rutgers colleague, Richard Tedesco, and I decided to conduct a systematic study of the time-use of students that might provide a more accurate description of how undergraduates spend their time. We speculated that such a study might demonstrate that those students who goof off would be the ones who get low grades and fail to graduate. We paid a random sample of 80 undergraduate dormitory residents at one undergraduate college $35 each for their time and effort. The effort was considerable. Those who accepted our offer to participate in the study were required to keep logs of their time for an entire week, accounting for every ten-minute interval of time, and to hand in the logs on the following day (except for weekends when we collected the logs for Saturday and Sunday on Monday morning).every day (except during weekends). Since they seem to have been punctilious in reporting even trivial details—many reported when they went to the bathroom—we are reasonably confident that we know how this group of students spent their time. We learned about all kind of activities: conversations with friends, watching television, taking showers, working out at the gym, communicating by telephone, attending classes, doing homework. We had assumed that, like adults, these college students would wake up in the morning, conduct a variety of activities during the day, and go to bed at night for seven, eight, or more hours of uninterrupted sleep before arising the next morning. Some did this. But others led extremely unstructured lives—eating, napping, TV viewing, and socializing throughout the day and the night, sometimes sandwiching in classes and studying, sometimes not. One male student usually stayed up until after 2 AM and slept until noon the next day. Some of the activities that he engaged in after midnight were watching sitcoms, playing video games, playing pool, eating at diners, and, more rarely, reading an assignment for a class. A few students slept so extensively and got up so late that it would have impossible for them to take morning classes. Despite the disorganized lives that many of the students led, all but three of the 80 eighty students in our sample eventually graduated. Here we relied on official university records rather than reports from students themselves. Part of the explanation may be that graduation is not a very high hurdle, as might be inferred from grade inflation.
Unlike the ascetic monks studying in medieval monasteries, American students expect fun, comfort, and recreation in addition to education at our colleges and universities. When Isaac Newton went to the University of Cambridge several centuries ago, he studied seven days a week, at least ten hours a day, and actively avoided the revelry that some Cambridge undergraduates engaged in even then. No one expects American undergraduates to work as hard as Isaac Newton or medieval monks. However, what seems to be happening on many American college campuses is the development of such a powerful “fun” culture that a quarter of the students or more arrive thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be resorted to only when they have nothing better to do.
Professors usually think of higher education as an opportunity for students to learn what they do not know and should know, and some students think so too. However, learning is compelled to compete for student attention with a variety of other student interests and also with part-time work. With the cost of college high and getting higher, students say that they have to work in order to attend college at all. If the majority of the students spending 16 hours or more a week working for pay are serious students who would be studying more if they did not need the money in order to help finance their educations, the loss is not only to them but to the academic atmosphere they might help to create on campus were they more visible. On the other hand, working for pay may contribute to the academic seriousness of the college culture rather than detracting from it if student reports are to be believed. I am referring not only to students in work-study programs whose work consists of helping a professor with his research. Students who take menial jobs in the college dining hall of or the building maintenance operation often say that having the discipline of a job helps them to organize their time more efficiently, including time for studying. If students working for pay would not take their academic responsibilities more seriously if they had no job, their employment is not an impediment to higher education. Paradoxically it may even help by getting them out of places where they would otherwise goof off. I do not know of empirical studies that could throw light on this issue.
By dint of numbers, the goof-off students may have more impact on the cultural atmosphere of most college campuses than serious students who are trying to learn as much as possible. Perhaps public policy can change this, at least marginally, by providing more incentives for serious students and fewer incentives for goof-off students.


  • Jackson Toby

    Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University, where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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One thought on “Goofing Off At College”

  1. That’s really awesome that you share such interesting books about higher education in the United States. I am sure that it will be really useful for many international students to read it. I hope that you will continue to make this type of content.

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